Any World Championship is a big event, but in 2011 it seemed that the level of interest and expectation heading into Champery was bigger than ever. Gwin’s record breaking five wins from seven world cups was unprecedented, especially as Minnaar had been the only other rider to mop up the remainder of the first places. Without a doubt the favourite, the pressure was on for Aaron and it seemed as though it was his race to lose. Yet if you believed the speculation there were quarters suggesting that he was lacking in the technical skill to pull it out of the bag on such a challenging track. But that was rubbish, as the greatest rider of 2011 and winning the World Cup overall he’s already proven that he is more than capable. But 2011 has been more than the year of Gwin, it’s been the year that the young guns threw caution to the wind and stamped their indelible mark on the old guard. No longer is it just a few names at the top of the time sheets for below the American have been a whole host of others who’ve upped their game massively.
...Fort William 2011
None more so of course than Danny Hart. A low key race in Pietermaritzburg was followed up by an explosion of energy at Fort William from start to finish. It was an explosion which left him on the second step of the podium. Loose. Wild. A screaming ball of fire; he drifted his way through corner after corner and made seemingly ever more lairy moves stick. And since then he’s never been out of the top ten, the Giant rider picking up second in the final round at Val di Sole to cement his 4th place overall. Not bad for a rider in only his second year out of Junior. Behind all this though a storm was brewing; hope of a good result at Champery meaning a top five, maybe a top three if it all went well. Then, after Val di Sole, and the confidence that everyone knew the second place to Gwin would have given Danny, that hope began to move to quiet expectation. Could he really do it?
Colin Meagher captures Danny in action at La Bresse.
Second in timed practice may not have been the perfect indication of things to come, but it certainly made the heart beat a little faster in anticipation of Sunday. But then came the rain. Always a house of cards at Champery, it once again crumbled at the worst possible moment. With practice dry and dusty all week it was now the turn of the wet weather specialists, the riders who thrive on terrible conditions and challenging tracks. To the Brits this meant the better chance for one of their own; for the Americans their chance to prove that Gwin can ride mud and technical. The rain was coming down heavy overnight and kept the track wet, easing off for the Juniors and in doing so giving them the best conditions to be seen all day. From then on though it was like being stuck under a shower head except it was an alpine sized one, dousing everything in its path with a deluge of water. With the pits a sea of umbrellas the racing was underway. Times were falling, but then so was the rain, which led to times being wildly variable as rider after rider lost traction and hit the ground hard. Heavier rain now, and the last twenty riders. Spagnolo smashed a 3:53 run and for a while it looked like he could hold on for a blistering result, a similar situation to previous races here, as rider after rider failed to match his time in the ever worsening conditions. Down to 4th last in the gate and it was Hart, patriotic to the last, the GB jersey matched with red, white and blue trousers, it was his turn to try his hand at slaying the beast of Champery.
The crowd were electric, the suspense sliceable with a knife, the rain falling harder and the spectators beginning to shake with excitement. What could the young lad from Redcar do in these atrocious conditions? Hopes were fading. Then BAM. Visibly quicker than anyone on the big screen he literally smashed the first split with a five second advantage. No-one had expected that. Memories of Sam Hill in ’07 came flooding back, Kovarik earlier in Fort William ’02 too, was this going to be a run that legends are made of? With everyone whispering ‘don’t throw it away, don’t throw it away’, the run was so intense, so inch perfect. The slides perfectly timed, perfectly held, his own lines through the trees and esses, the electricity was virtually dancing in the air down in the pits. There was no way he could hold this together though was there? It looked like he was riding at 110%, but then that was the same in Fort William and Val di Sole. This was intentional. BAM BAM. Ten seconds up at the second split. How was he holding this shit together? The cheering deafening, the intensity of the support mesmerizing, everyone knew there was something special going on under the stormy Swiss skies this day. BAM BAM BAM, the biggest whip of the weekend off the double, doesn’t he realize this is the run of his life and he’s on a push bike not a 'crosser? The crowd were going mental, the final sprint to the finish was all he needed. 11.699 seconds? Warner was having seizures, Danny's dad the same. Just three to go now. First Gee, but quickly it became one to forget as things went from bad to worse. Then Minnaar, but again there was failure to perform. Gwin the only one left now, he too smashing the top section just under a second down on Danny at the first split. But then disaster, drifting wide into a section of wood and getting caught in the catch netting, it was all over. The realization of a dream sinking in for one rider, the realization of a nightmare for the other.
To see someone you’ve ridden with for years achieve the ultimate goal was spell-binding. At just 19 Danny had achieved in as many years of being alive as Steve Peat had virtually spent trying. In conditions far worse than those of the earlier riders the dominance was unbelievable, a fairy tale of epic proportions, a story that’s going down in the history books of downhill. There were tears on the cheeks of many, not least those of his parents, Sue & Paul, who’ve supported him every step of the way. To those that know them this wasn’t just one day, this was the culmination of nearly ten years of sacrifice, effort and talent, hundreds of thousands of miles driven and flown across the world, the good days and the bad. And it was worth it all, every penny and every hour. Number one in the world. From here on he is the 2011 Downhill World Champion, the little kid from the north of England who for years had ridden virtually every race that there was to be ridden in the UK, big and small. And despite the inescapable pressure of the expectation heaped upon his shoulders he just rode his bike in the only way he knew. The week before all he’d wanted to do was ride with friends from back home in Morzine and was virtually first in the queue for every practice session in Champery. No pretension here, just a kid who loves riding.
This one goes to Danny of course, but to Sue and Paul too for the years of dedication. You all earned it, now go and enjoy it.
Playing around in Whistler between races, this shot by Sterling Lorence shows Danny Hart's style in a nutshell.