Athlete of the Year NomineesWhat a year of racing we have had across all disciplines. The world's best athletes provided the spectacle, and the incredible coverage we are lucky enough to have online in 2018 meant an unhealthy (for me) amount of hours on the sofa or in a bar watching the magic unfold.
As always, this year saw great highs and tough lows, from XC to enduro, downhill, and freeride. It would be tough to argue that this wasn't the best ever year for mountain bike fans: Maes' crossover was unthinkable; the young Höll breezed through, despite the pressure put on her; Ravanel had a perfect enduro season, and Pierron stamped his mark on the downhill circuit.
Why he's nominated:
Martin Maes first showed a glimmer of brilliance way back in 2012 when he grabbed a 5th place at the Enduro of Nations as a 15-year-old. Since then, he was taken under the wing of the Athertons and stayed true to GT when they changed sponsors. He showed promise for years, but never quite managed to reach his potential. There were lots of 'could' and 'would' races, although one solid win at the EWS Finale in 2016.
However, 2018 was insane for the young Belgian. He opened the season in Chile with a 2nd, behind Hill. Then, unfortunately, he dislocated his shoulder in the Colombian mud, . For many athletes, an injury like this would write off their season, but he came back with a 3rd in France a few months later. His season went from strength to strength, with three 2nd places at the following EWS races, a win in Whistler, and a second overall. Due to a broken bone in his hand in Finale, and the early season dislocation he could only manage fourth in the overall, but even if he had sustained one injury, rather than two, it would have come down to the line between him and Hill.
An amazing season in itself, but I'm sure there is something else... Oh yeah! One week after the Whistler EWS win, on a downhill bike he had only ridden three times prior, Maes 'fluked' a win at an almost-home wet World Cup in La Bresse. Naysayers a-plenty suggested he had better conditions in the mud and the usual jealous fluff, but he only needed to wait two more weekends to shut them up. A second place at the World Championships in Lenzerheide behind Loic Bruni, was unbelievable.
Why she's nominated:
Vali Höll's name has been floating around for a couple of seasons. She grew up in Saalbach and was beating elite women at European events before she had made it into Juniors. Rumors that Rachel Atherton wanted her on their team, that YT had a 10-year contract with her, and that SRAM wanted to take her on as a star-athlete were spreading before she had made it to her first World Cup.
She showed up in Lösinj and showed exactly what she was capable of with a 12-second win. The first year Junior dominated every single race to complete a perfect season, including bringing home World Championship gold. Many people thought she would be good enough to thrash all of the Elite women's times in her first season, which she didn't do, but her time in La Bresse would have bagged third in Elite. I think she probably could have pulled this feat off, but she has a sensible head on young shoulders. With another season in Juniors ahead to practice and learn the ropes, I might well be reporting this very story next year.
Why he's nominated:
Amaury Pierron has been building form for a few seasons, although somewhat erratically. His fifth place in Lourdes at the opening round of 2016 showed promise, but this was followed by ups and downs for that season, and the next, culminating in a commendable 2nd at the last round of 2017. This was a key confidence boost heading into the offseason.
2018 saw him jump from the Lac Blanc team up to the full-factory Commencal / Vallnord team. A solid off-season didn't bear fruit at the awkward, sharp, and loose Losinj where he punctured to cross the harbor finish line in 21st. The geeks amongst us spotted his split times, though, which were well and truly on the podium pre-puncture. With the Croatian sun in the rearview mirror, Pierron brewed a hat-trick of wins, ticking them off in style: Fort William, Leogang, Val di Sole, boom-boom-boom. Perhaps pressure placed him back in 2nd at Vallnord – a hard venue to conquer, especially when Max Commencal himself is watching you in his adopted hometown, and expecting another gold for the office wall opposite the finish arena.
The Frenchman was still looking strong in Mont Ste Anne, but a huge crash on his last practice run knocked the wind out of his sails. But he did what he needed to do without fanfare – a 4th place on the dusty classic was all he needed to wrap up the overall with a race in hand.
Why she's nominated:
A perfect season is a near impossibility in the world of elite mountain biking. The number of factors involved make it a sport like no other. The Enduro World Series takes this to another level, where athletes are battling across three continents, eight different climates, and hundreds of kilometers of trails they have only seen once before. To take on these trails and stay injury free, keep your bike in one-piece, have the weather gods on your side over an eight-month period, and win at every single race is unbelievable.
Cecile did this, and not only won every race, but she also won nearly every stage, and like Maes, threw a few World Cup downhill races in for good measure. Her success at downhill wasn't as terrific as the Belgian's, but impressive nonetheless, as a 37-year-old who can destroy you with car park tricks and a background of XC racing.