Nominees for Best Performance of the YearPinkbike's nominees for Best Performance span all of the disciplines this year. This was a season for the storybooks and most of the drama unfolded on Red Bull's video channel. So, unless you were deployed on the International Space Station, you have no excuse for missing off-the-hook efforts laid down by Jolanda Neff, who battled back from two flat tires at La Bresse to win the day and the XCO World Cup series in the final race; by Nicholi Rogatkin, who became the first to earn the Slopestyle Triple Crown in the last sixty seconds of the Whistler Joyride; by Sam Hill, who carved his name in cycling history by adding a second straight EWS overall to to his palmarès of DH World Cup and World Championship victories; by enduro pro Martin Maes, who came back from injury to win the Whistler EWS, and then grabbed a DH bike and won the World Cup downhill in France a week later; and finally, by Kate Courtney, who was racing as an elite for her first season on the World Cup cross-country circuit and smashed out a gold medal at the World Championships.
Five outstanding performances, chosen from a season of competition that topped anything we've experienced in well over a decade.
Why she's nominated:
Technical and physically demanding, the World Cup course in La Bresse, France, framed what may have been the most exciting cross-country race ever. La Bresse was the final race of the 2018 series. Swiss rider Jolanda Neff was leading the series by a narrow margin, but Danish powerhouse Annika Langvad was favored to win. Langvad, who had crushed Neff and the rest of the women's field in the prologue short track race, told the press, "I have nothing to lose. I am going for the win."
Neff and Langvad both wear the World Championship stripes, but Langvad had never won the World Cup title. A victory for Langvad at La Bresse would also give her the overall series if Neff failed to finish third place or better. Those ingredients alone would have been enough to power a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but La Bresse threw in some wild cards that turned the race into a six-lap nail-biter
that will be retold for years to come.
Yolanda Neff is arguably the best technical bike-handler in the women's cross-country field. Annika Langvad is not. Heavy rain and a very technical circuit should have favored Neff, but sticky mud exaggerated the difficulty of its brutal climbs, which made Langvad her most dangerous foe. Neff executed correctly, breaking clear from the field from the start, gapping 30 seconds on Langvad on lap one before suffering a rear flat that put her a minute behind. Undaunted, Neff powered back toward the front group. Meanwhile. Langvad literally pushed her way into the lead in a fight with Emily Batty and French favorite Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Fate then took Langvad back a handful of positions, with a puncture just as Neff pulled into contact. Taking advantage of her technical skills, Neff once again gapped the leaders and looked to be on pace to win - until a front flat again threw the Swiss rider out of contention.
From the Race Report:Why He's nominated:
Up front, the largest crowd to attend a World Cup XC race watched the battle climax. Old-school versus new-school. Brains versus brawn. Batty and Prevot besting Langvad on the descents. Langvad powering past on the climbs then dismounting, making herself as large as possible to stave off her chasers. The circus continued until Neff stepped into the pain cave and somehow bridged back to the leaders. For a brief period, the four were locked together in combat. Langvad on foot, bumbling through the slippery roots, Batty and Prevot searching for the upper hand on the downs. But it would be Jolanda Neff who, in one swoop, would retake control of the race, tame the rocks and logs of La Bresse and power across the line alone before collapsing, completely spent - winner and series champion.
Whistler reports that 35,000 fans were on hand to witness Nickoli Rogatkin win slopestyle competition's most elusive prize. This story, however, is as much about Brett Rheeder as it is about Rogatkin. To earn the Triple Crown, a competitor must win three of the four Crankworx slopestyle events. Rheeder had the chance to nail down three back in 2015, but crashed out in Whistler. His powerful style and trademark big moves were often downplayed by judges in favor of more flippy stuff laid down by arch-rival Brandon Semenuk and especially Nicholi Rogatkin, whose lightning-quick moves resemble ninja sword-fighting more than slopestyle tricks.
The tables were reversed by the end of the 2018 season. Semenuk was out. Rheeder was the dominating force who came to Whistler as the points leader. He brought his A-game, fully intending to cap off the Crankworx series with a win. Rogatkin, however, had nothing to lose. He had won both the Innsbruck and Les Gets events, and with the Triple Crown in his sights, second place was not an option. When the day arrived, it became clear that this was going to be a shootout between Rheeder and Rogatkin.
Rheeder was on fire for his second run.
Slopestyle judges are infamous for down-scoring early performances, so Rogatkin must have been, on one hand, relieved to be the second-to-last pick for the first of two rounds, but on the other hand, worried as hell, because his performance would be followed by Rheeder. Rogatkin went all out. He was a blur, slashing and spinning every feature, earning a 92.75 score that most believed to be insurmountable. The competition, however, may have been decided differently in the first round, had Rheeder not missed the closing trick in an otherwise phenomenal trip down the boneyard. With Rheeder dusting off the disappointment of his finish-drop crash, Rogatkin once again appeared to have the crown in hand.
Watch the replayWhy He's nominated:
Rheeder was dealt an early slot in the second round. Rogatkin would go last. You could smell the pressure when Rheeder was called to drop in, but Brett was somewhere in Rheederland, riding with such fluidity that his entire performance seemed to be one continuous trick. Rheeder earned a 94.5.
"His riding is insane and he was on it today," exclaimed Rogatkin. "It basically made me have to go 100-percent all-in which, fortunately, I’ve done before." Rogatkin needed much more than a positive winning attitude to best Rheeder. Somehow, he bent time and gravity, earning a huge, 96.5 score and a place in the record books as the first to wear the Triple Crown of Slopestyle.
Sam Hill's impressive resume as a pro downhill racer virtually guaranteed some sporadic victories upon his announcement in 2016 that he was turning his attention to enduro. Few anticipated, however, that the flag-bearer of flat pedals would win the overall series title in his first full season of EWS racing. Hill proved that 2017 was no fluke by bagging four out of eight races this year, battling with Damian Oton and squashing late-season charges by Martin Maes and Richie Rude to earn a second consecutive EWS World Champion title. It would be easy to pass off Hill's success as raw talent and World Cup downhill muscle memory. EWS competitors and race photographers, however, tell a different story.
The new Sam Hill is leaner and a much more calculated rider. He has to be. There are eight World Cup DH races on the calendar - lift served, with scheduled practice, timed training and unlimited mechanical support. That's less than the average number of downhill stages in a weekend of EWS racing, and in most cases racers must pedal to both practice and race. Key components, like wheels frames and suspension parts, are tagged and carry time penalties. That's the equivalent of racing over 70 World Cup downhills, after a single practice run, without breaking anything major on the bike. Enduro racing is a different game, and the 2018 season bears witness that Samuel Hill has learned how to play it.
From the EWS interview:Why He's nominated:
"He makes it look too damn easy," was the answer when a prominent PB photographer was asked why there were so few images of Sam Hill in his portfolio. "He is unhumanly fast in the smoother sections, but when he comes into a super techy part of the stage, he throttles back and just breezes past us."
The 2018 Enduro World Series was a far cry from "easy." Moon dust and high-altitude liaisons in Chile, followed by torrential rain and mud in Columbia set the stage for some of the wildest weather and track conditions the EWS has seen in one season of racing. Add that to a stacked men's field that saw multiple stage winners at almost every venue and you can begin to appreciate the calculated methodology of Hill, the EWS racer, who out-rode, outsmarted and outlasted them all to earn the title of EWS World Champion twice in his first two seasons of enduro competition.
Traditionally, World Cup downhill racing has become the headwaters from which successful enduro racers have sprung forth. This year, Martin Maes flipped that equation up-side-down. The Belgian EWS pro was on a late season tear, culminating in a victory at Whistler, beating series leader Sam Hill. Buoyed by that success, perhaps, Maes borrowed a GT Fury from his sponsor, flew to France the following weekend and entered the World Cup Downhill at La Bresse.
Those who had been following Maes would not have been surprised. Maes posted a tenth-place finish at the Fort William World Cup earlier in the year, which neither Maes nor the downhill community expected. "Coming into Fort William three months ago, a top 15 would be perfect, " said an elated Maes. "I'd be over the moon if I got a top ten... I got a top ten!"
Few could have imagined, however, that Maes would win at the series final in La Bresse. Maes admitted later that he was shooting for a top five finish. Reportedly, he had little time on the new GT Fury and conditions were far from ideal. Rain had turned the race course into an ever-changing mixture of sticky putty and axle grease that humbled just about everyone. If it is true that cream always rises to the top, surely, this should have been the day for the likes of Bruni, Hart, Minnaar, Gwin, or Pierron to step forward.
Maes sprinted out of the start box into the rain, foot-out, drifting the greasy corners, while putting his lanky figure to good use, flowing over the technical sections, keeping the wheels in contact with the track. It took a while for the enduro racer to process the fact that the leader board was green. Former teammate Gee Atherton had to call Maes to the hot seat to watch the rest of the show. Loic Bruni went down. Gwin went down. Series winner Amaury Pierron lost control of his winning run within sight of the line. When it was realized that none of the top qualifiers could match the Belgian EWS racer's time, everyone went wild.
"La Bresse, it's a short track," Maes said in the post race interview. "It's the same kind of ground in Belgium, the same conditions... So I'm aiming for a top five and if I get a top five I am stoked. F***! I got the win... I don't know what to expect next. I just rode my bike fast. I didn't take any extra risk. I wasn't out of control at any time, so that feels even better - knowing you can be on top and not taking any stupid risks is sick! I'm over the moon."
Watch Maes' Winning run at La Bresse:Why she's nominated:
When asked if downhill was more difficult than enduro, Maes would later say that multiple practice sessions and the ability to set your bike to perfection made it easier to go fast on a DH course. Racing enduro, with one lap to practice was more physical and difficult. To his surprise, he said that returning from downhill to enduro was hard because, for a while, it was difficult to gauge his speed. He was hitting technical sections much too fast.
Will we see more EWS stars on World Cup DH podiums? Only time will tell, but Maes says he'll race the first two rounds of both disciplines next season before he makes up his mind...
By US standards, 22-year-old Kate Courtney was a cross-country phenom before stepping onto the World Cup Stage. Already a 12-time and current National Champion, last year the San Francisco native won four U23 World Cups on her way to bagging the overall series title. That's an impressive resume in America, but in the context of Elite World Cup racing, it only amounts to an undergraduate degree. Almost every woman on the elite starting line has similar credentials. Courtney's post-graduate program commenced when she lined beside them in her first season as a World Cup Elite.
Evidently, Kate had done her homework. Warming up for the XCO season, Courtney paired up with fellow Specialized rider Annika Langvad to win seven stages and bag the team category at the Cape Epic. Her World Cup results were much better than expected. Proudly wearing her USA National Champion jersey, Courtney posted top-ten finishes in six out of eight races, and by series end, she was on announcer Rob Warner's radar as "the one the watch next year." Warner's prophecy didn't have to wait that long.
Nobody holds back at the World Championships, which drives top riders to become mythological monsters, hungry for gold. The 2018 Worlds would be staged on the steep and technical track in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Understandably, all bets among the 20 thousand Swiss spectators were on Jolanda Neff, who had sewn up the overall World Cup series, defeating the powerful Annika Langvad, who commentator Bart Brenjens - a cross-country hero in his own right - predicted would dominate the women's field.
Neff, a skilled bike handler, was the better match for
Lenzerheide's signature roots were waiting to snag riders around every turn in the upper part of the course.
the race course, but perfect weather was drying up the slippery root sections under the forest canopy, which meant that Annika's signature climbing attacks would be unbridled by her less than stellar riding skills. Two other women with legs, lungs and skills were also given the nod; Canadian Emily Batty and French hopeful Pauline Ferrand-Prévot had made it clear in World Cup competition that they had what it took to be spoilers, given Lenzerheide's unforgiving terrain. Kate Courtney, however, was not even in the discussion, which turned out to be a big mistake.
Neff exploded off the line, but could not gap the relentless Annika Langvad, The powerhouse Dane stormed past the Swiss favorite, trailing Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Kate Courtney, who clung to her wheel for dear life on the first climb. Langvad shook them off and appeared to be riding solo when she crossed the line for lap two.
Meanwhile, Emily Batty had bridged up to Courtney. Courtney, who grew up riding mountain bikes in Marin County was well matched with Batty, and the two riders picked up the pace. Prévot faded out of the picture, and by lap three, it looked like the medals had been sorted. Langvad was maintaining a golden pace, over a half minute ahead, leaving Courtney and Batty to sort out the silver and bronze.
Somewhere in the fight, Courtney dropped Batty and set off on her own. In her words: "My goal was to execute my race plan, focus on pacing, being really smooth and riding my own race. I wasn’t thinking about results for any moment, I just wanted to get through the sections as fast as I could and ride smoothly through the roots." Suddenly, Langvad was within reach, slowed by a mid race fall. Courtney had been riding the faster, but more technical A-lines down the technical parts of the circuit, while Langvad favored the easier, ride-around B-lines. Efforts by Langvad to shake off the US rookie on the climbs backfired when a rear-wheel slip forced her off the bike. Courtney seized the moment and made her last-lap attack stick. The gold medal went to USA's Kate Courtney - the first female US XC racer to wear the stripes in 17 years.
Courtney earned her master's degree in World Cup cross-country competition in a single season. Watch Kate Courtney win in Lenzerheide: