World Champs are renowned for custom bikes and one-off set up tricks and never has that been more true than in Pietermaritzberg in 2013.
The track had been a fixture on the World Cup circuit since 2009 and had quickly become a notorious venue thanks to a lengthy, uphill pedal section in the middle of the track. Riders were well aware of the section's uncanny knack of making or breaking a race run so they were doing all they could to power through it as fast as possible. Single-ply, fast-rolling tyres, power meters, dropper posts and more were spotted in the pits, although droppers ended up not being much use in 2013 as the pedal section had been packed with huge tabletops for the event.
Here's 2013 South African National Champion Tiaan Odendaal previewing the World Champs course, the pedal section starts at around 2:20.
Some riders went further than others in their search for speed though. Mitch Ropelato brought 29" wheels to Elite DH racing for the first time as he elected to race on a Specialized Enduro. It was a far from popular decision as 650B wheels had only just started to creep into the sport and the #26aintdead
brigade began to notice their favourite wheelsize fading out of the sport. Josh Bryceland would go on to win the last World Cup on 26-inch wheels at the end of 2014 and they haven't really featured in downhill racing since.
One of the other men riding bigger wheels was Steve Smith on his custom 650B race bike. Instead of a converted Wilson, he had a one-off prototype flown straight from Devinci's factory in Chicoutimi that was designed by Dave Weagle specifically for the event as a 165mm travel mini downhill bike. Up front was a lowered Boxxer with 175mm travel, one of the first BlackBox 650B forks RockShox offered to athletes, although Smith was apparently prepared to race on a Pike with this frame.
Dave Weagle said at the time: "One track, one weekend, and a couple of closely matched riders to design for, that's a really fun challenge, one that I really love being in a position to tackle. If I can help these guys take even a tenth of a second off of their time, then I'm ecstatic. In this case, I'm hopeful for seconds." That bike later became the blueprint for the updated Spartan
but our feature on Stevie's bike can be read here
There was only one other bike that managed to generate the same level of excitement, and that belonged to one Jared Graves.Jared's Bike
Graves had become a full-time EWS convert at this point and hadn't raced downhill since Fort William in June, which he used to qualify for the World Champs. He had found instant success in enduro racing though and picked up his first win at the inaugural Crankworx Whistler round at the start of August followed by a second-place at Val D'Isere just a week before the World Championships.
He flew over with the bike he had been racing at the EWS all year ready with the aim of putting some World Cup pedigree riders to shame. Of course, he didn't run the exact same set up that had seen him as a regular fixture on the EWS podium that year. The medium frame, contact points, and wheels (26" for those keeping score) remained the same but pretty much everything else was adapted to the demands of the Pietermaritzberg course.
For suspension, a Fox 36 Float with 180mm of travel replaced Graves' usual Fox 34. This had the double effect of adding a bit more damping up front and also slackening the bike off to around a 65° head angle. He paired the fork with a Fox Float X that had apparently been tinkered with by Fox to give more ramp-up at the end of the stroke.
His drivetrain got an even bigger overhaul as he swapped out his usual 38T ring for a 40T and used the lower eight cogs of an Ultegra ten-speed (11-23) cassette in the rear. The biggest cog has been removed, and the teeth of the second-largest cog had been ground down, creating a guard to prevent the chain from coming off into the spokes. This was a simple, yet effective way of saving weight and only running the gears that will be necessary on a high-speed course such as Pietermaritzburg.
Given that a lot of the World Cup racers were fitting dropper posts for the PMB pedal, it is interesting that Graves went the other way and took his off. In his own words, "in my opinion, you should be standing up giving it all you have, not sitting on your bum." Jared also wasn't drawn into fitting low-profile tyres as some racers were, instead he stuck with a Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5 in the front and a High Roller 2.4 in the rear, both with DH casings and set up tubeless using a split tube. He said: "the lighter EXO sidewall tires were a bit too squirmy on the high-speed impacts and I couldn't push hard enough in some key sections."
Read more about the bike, here
Two unforeseen problems immediately made life a bit more difficult for Jared as he arrived in Pietermartizberg fresh off the flight from the French round of the EWS. Firstly, the Master World Championships had been held on the course the week before leaving the track beaten up and rougher than he was expecting. Secondly, was the series of huge tabletops that had been built to break up the longest pedalling drag of the course, cutting short the section of the course that would have given him the greatest advantage.
It didn't deter him from racing on the enduro bike though and in seeding, he came down in fourth despite being early in the running order on a track still slick from overnight rain. We spoke to him after his run and he said, "I've always been a racer at heart whether it's a local race or World Champs... I have that same feeling of wanting to give the best you can so I'm sure it'll be no different tomorrow and I'll give it everything I've got."
...And that he did. Here's how he describes it:
It took nearly an hour until his time was beaten as Mick Hannah crossed the line to go into the hot seat. Only one other man would beat that time on the day and that was Greg Minnaar in what may have been one of the biggest races of his life. Minnaar came into the race looking to become only the fourth man ever to defend the Rainbow Stripes but more than that, he'd have to do it on home soil with the weight of expectations of his country on his shoulders. If there's a man for staying cool under pressure though, it's the South African G.O.A.T who delivered a run with effortless style to finish at the top of the timesheet.
Carnage in the finish area as the result is confirmed