How we’ve managed to survive without the Formula 1 of mountain biking for so long is mind-boggling, but one thing’s for sure; this weekend’s action in Lourdes is going to throw up all sorts of surprises for riders and fans alike.
The 2017 season opener in the miracle-making town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees will put to rest the big questions around how the well that pre-season training and testing had worked out, how new riders and new teams have got on with their new set-ups, and last but not least, whether all if not most of the teams have adopted the bigger wheels, and if so, how they’ll do against the 650b crew.
The Pic du Jer is ultrafast, technical and full of surprises. It's seen many victims under its feet, with many riders crashing out and retiring due to injury even before finals had a chance to get underway.
It's the third consecutive year at Lourdes and with the track being next door to a town with a population of around 15,000 and the global centre of the Marian pilgrimage, its transport links are pretty good, meaning there's always a healthy and often rowdy crowd for the race weekend. Spectator entry is free...so what are you waiting for?
As for the track itself, it's steep and slippery, and when it rains (which it often does a lot of in April) you can amplify that steep and slipperiness ten times over. The top section is full of rock-infested berms and then onto a fast and big jump section. Once riders have had time to take their first breath, they're into the now famous steep section where these past two years we've seen all sorts of creative lines being taken. There are even more jumps after that, and the following wooded section provides no shelter, with exposed roots being just as slippery as the rock sections earlier on. Lower down the track opens up, giving riders even more line choice before it closes back up again and becomes an off-camber nightmare. A bridge-sender at the end of the track sees riders shoot into the finish line and the cheering crowd.
Despite only having qualified in 10th spot, Aaron Gwin took the top step in last year’s final much to the home crowd's disappointment. Gwin's run was insanely good and let's not forget it was his first UCI-level outing on his YT Tues, and as we know that partnership turned out quite nicely for them both.
Naturally, the French crowd had come to see their most gifted homegrown talent take the win, but it wasn’t to be Loic Bruni’s day even though he had qualified first and was therefore the last man down the track come race day. As the video below shows, Bruni had a wild run, eventually crashing out spectacularly in the woods, but he quickly got back on his bike and crossed the finish line, muddy and in 14th place.
However, the local crowd can’t have been too disappointed after seeing Frenchman Amaury Pierron take fifth, and let’s not forget Stevie Smith taking second spot, just ahead of Danny Hart and Troy Brosnan.
Over to the Elite Women's race and we were seeing a sign of things to come when Rachel Atherton took the win last year here. However, it's worth remembering that Tahnee Seagrave had qualified first but with the track conditions having dried up overnight, Atherton was able to take advantage over Seagrave who eventually crossed the finish line 4.4 seconds in second place behind Atherton.
They clearly love Loic. And they appear to enjoy dressing up as Smurfs. We can wholly understand the former but we're struggling to get our head around the latter.
Pinkbike will be providing you the best daily coverage from our awesome team of photographers and tech gurus in Lourdes as soon as the teams begin to turn up from Wednesday. Undoubtedly there'll be plenty of tech First Looks to supplement our Photo Epics from Track Walk on Thursday, Practice on Friday, Qualifying on Saturday and Finals on Sunday.
If you want to tune to the live timing, Pinkbike will be posting them on the front page for Practice, Qualifying, and Finals. A full run down of the programme is downloadable here
. For the finals you can also watch the action live on Red Bull TV from 13:00 local CEST (12:00 BST // 04:00 PDT // 07:00 EDT).
Elite Men – 2016
1st // Aaron GWIN // 03:09.131
2nd // Steve SMITH // 03:11.602
3rd // Danny HART // 03:11.87Elite Women – 2016
1st // Rachel ATHERTON // 03:50.383
2nd // Tahnee SEAGRAVE // 03:54.855
3rd // Manon CARPENTER // 04:00.644Elite Men – 2015
1st // Aaron GWIN // 02:58.691
2nd // Loic BRUNI // 03:02.646
3rd // Mike JONES // 03:05.096Elite Women – 2015
1st // Emmeline RAGOT // 03:32.625
2nd // Rachel ATHERTON // 03:34.685
3rd // Myriam NICOLE // 03:35.133