As enjoyable as it is to geek out over the latest mountain bike gadgetry, the athletes at the top level of our sport are deserving of attention as well. These are the men and women who are truly at the cutting edge, pushing themselves and their equipment incredibly hard day in and day out. The level of competition is higher than ever, and the amount of dedication and training that's now required to compete as an elite downhill or enduro racer is astounding. The same goes for the feats of daring and skill performed by the top slopestyle and freeride athletes, where every contest sees the bar raised higher and higher.
The categories for this year's Pinkbike Athlete Awards are: Male Gravity Racer of the Year, Female Gravity Racer of the Year, and Slopestyle / Freeride Athlete of the Year. “Enduro” was this year's buzzword, especially with the introduction of the Enduro World Series, and as such enduro racing has been included under the gravity umbrella. All of the athletes on the World Cup, EWS, and FMB circuit are incredibly talented, but we've nominated the best of the best, those riders who delivered truly outstanding performances over the course of the 2013 season. Results weren't the only criteria for choosing the nominees, but they certainly played a large role in helping our panel sort out who rose to the top. The winners will be announced later this month, but until then, who do you think is going to take home the PB Awards trophy in each category?
Male Gravity Racer of the Year
Jerome Clementz was dominating enduro races before the rest of the world caught on, and when they finally did, he firmly maintained his position as one of the sport's most capable riders. Clementz won four of the seven stops in the inaugural Enduro World Series, and in doing so became the first men's Enduro World Champion. His consistency is unparallelled in enduro racing – it's rare to see his name anywhere below the top two spots in the results, let alone out of the top ten. At the end of the day though, Clementz's passion for mountain biking shines through; he's a true mountain biker to the core, and his affinity for having fun on two wheels is readily apparent.
If there was a category for all-round mountain biker of the year, Jared Graves would surely be the favorite. Famed for his rigorous training and ridiculous level of fitness, Graves started his season off by winning the Sea Otter dual slalom, and then went on to prove his worth as a contender in the Enduro World Series with four second place finishes and a win at EWS #5 in Whistler, BC. And then there's the Pietermaritzburg World Championships, where the Australian rider managed to rocket his way to a third place finish, his first DH World Championships podium. The clincher? Graves was on different versions of the same bike, Yeti's SB66, for all of his podium finishes, proving the bike's capabilities in everything from dual slalom to downhill. Never one to rest on his laurels, with a season of enduro racing under his belt, you can be sure Graves is going to come out swinging next season, looking to take the title away from Clementz.
The 2013 race season saw Steve Smith's steady rise to the upper ranks of downhill racing culminate with him taking the overall World Cup title aboard his Devinci Wilson. The mustachioed Canadian stood on the podium at the first three World Cups of the season, but he came into top form with impeccable timing, sweeping the final three races of the year to emerge victorious after a heated battle with Gee Atherton. Racking up three World Cup DH victories in a row places Smith among downhill's elite, joining the likes of Nicolas Vouilloz, Steve Peat, and Aaron Gwin in the record books. Plus, in addition to his World Cup victories, Smith took wins in his home country, taking the Canadian National Championships, the Crankworx Canadian Open, and the Crankworx Air DH. At only 24 years of age, Smith has amassed an incredible list of results, and we expect even more of the same in the coming years from the good-natured shredder.
Female Gravity Racer of the Year
This season saw Rachel Atherton pilot her GT Fury to victory at four World Cup races, bringing her total number of World Cup wins to nineteen and making her the most awarded British rider in mountain biking. By the end of the season Rachel had added British National Champion, World Champion, and World Cup Overall winner to her already impressive race resume. This incredible showing proved the Rachel is solidly on top of her game, truly the fastest female downhiller in the world. It's not that she doesn't have competition, as there are a number of competitors nipping at her heals, but Rachel has the ability to lay down blisteringly fast runs when it counts, no matter the conditions.
Emmeline Ragot had a strong showing this season, and not just in downhill racing. The French rider showed up at two stops of the Enduro World Series and podiumed at both races, demonstrating her high level of fitness and bike handling. It's not easy to race both downhill and enduro successfully – the training regimens for the two disciplines are quite different, and doing well in both is comparable to simultaneously being a sprinter and a middle distance runner, which is no easy task. Ragot, the 2011 Downhill World Champion came in second to Rachel Atherton at this year's World Champs, but managed to take win the final World Cup of the season in Leogang. Non-World Cup victories for Ragot included the Cranworx Garbanzo DH, the Crankworx Canadian Open, along with the European Continental Championships.
Tracy Moseley may have retired from downhill racing, but that doesn't mean she's not riding as hard and fast as ever. As part of the first wave of former World Cup downhill racers who have made the transition to enduro racing, Tracy left her mark on the Enduro World Series' first season, winning five out of the seven events on the tour on her way to winning the overall title. She also abided by her own set of ethics, refusing to shuttle to gain extra practice, and making her way to the top of the stages under her own power. And if her results in the EWS weren't enough, a third place at the British National Championships cross-country race was a convincing demonstration of just how strong and well rounded of an athlete T-Mo really is. Tracy has also continued to offer clinics and coaching for women throughout the season, passing on the skills that she has developed during her time as a professional athlete.
Slopestyle / Freeride Athlete of the Year
Sam Pilgrim was a force to be reckoned with on the FMB World Tour this season. With his big bag of technical tricks and high flying style, the gap-toothed Brit was hard to miss aboard his flourescent yellow NS Bikes hardtail. Pilgrim won a number of contests, including the FISE Slopestyle, Swatch Rocket Air, and 26TRIX, and placed second at Crankworx Les Deux Alpes and at the Bearclaw Invitational. Most importantly, he managed to escape the season ending injuries that claimed several of his fellow competitors, and his results earned him the title of FMB World Tour Champion. While he still hasn't quite managed to translate his bike skills into the freeride arena of Red Bull Rampage, as a pure slopestyle athlete Pilgrim is surely one of the best riders around.
Brandon Semenuk's name is synonymous with 'slopestyle.' His inimitable, effortless yet calculated style is tough to beat, as competitors found out at Crankworx Les Deux Alpes, Crankworx Whistler, and at the Bearclaw Invitational. He also brought home a silver from the first ever X-Games slopestyle contest, and although the Red Bull Rampage didn't go exactly as planned, the burly line that Semenuk had picked out was a reminder that he can shred on a big bike as well. But competition wasn't the main focus of the 2013 season for the Canadian rider – Semenuk spent much of his time filming for episodes of 'Life Behind Bars' and 'Rad Company,' an upcoming film project with Red Bull and Freeride Entertainment that's sure to further prove why he's earned the nomination for Slopestyle / Freeride Athlete of the Year.
Cameron Zink The winner of each category will be announced later this month.
In front of his pregnant girlfriend and legions of nervous fans, Cam Zink went for the biggest backflip in mountain bike history and stomped it. It's the sheer amount of confidence it takes just to consider attempting a feat of this magnitude that earns Zink his nomination. There are only a handful of riders in the world who would even straight air the Oakley Icon Sender, but to backflip it? Cam Zink took the sport of mountain biking to another level, one that is incomprehensible to some, but inspirational for others, the young guns who will soon follow in his tire tracks and go to even greater heights in the future.