I'm not sure I like the term GOAT. However, what really frustrates me is somebody being referred to as a and not the GOAT. It's just nonsensical.
Mountain biking, compared to others, is a relatively young sport. It's also a sport where there is a perception of a near-level playing field among the sports elite teams and riders. Whether or not this is true is for another time. However, I think it's more of an apples-to-apples than something like football, where comparing Dixie Dean to a modern center forward is almost pointless, or similar comparisons with Juan Manuel Fangio in Formula One.
But World Cup downhill has been around for a mere 30 years and so comparisons are easier. Not to sway you one way or another, but as a tidbit, for 23 of those years Greg Minnaar has been competing at the pointy end. To help provide context of how competitive the field was in any given year, I've included the differences represented as a percentage of the times for the elite world championship podium of that year, so you too can make wildly speculative assumptions about the depth of the field in regards to talent.
The minimum criteria for this poll is that the rider in question must have won the UCI downhill World Cup overall at least twice, and not to have been consistently beaten by another member on the list. There have been plenty of breakout stars, or athlete's that have been unstoppable on a certain track or weekend. This isn't a poll to see who you think has achieved the highest level for a short period. It's a poll to see who has added the most, and coupled incredible feats with incredible consistency. It's also worth considering just how dominate some of those periods were, or what their contribution to the elite field was.
Has downhill become more competitive as the years have gone on? Well, if we take the closeness of the racing as an an indication, apparently not. There is a slight skew, but I would say it argues that the tightest racing was in the latter part of the 00s.
Anne-Caroline Chausson (5 overall, 9 world championships, 40 wins) - A true great of mountain biking, Chausson has won a staggering thirteen senior world championships across various disciplines. That's not to mention three junior world championships and the Olympic gold medal or her forty World Cup wins and multiple EWS victories. By stats alone, Chausson should be the out and out winner. To choose anyone else would be predicated upon the idea that racing was somehow easier, or the competition not as fierce in the 90s. While it may be true that the sport was different, there was also more out of industry sponsors and, at times, arguably more money and widespread commercial appeal, and pressure, heaped upon the riders.
Rachel Atherton (6 overall, 5 world championships, 39 wins) - Winning her first World Cup overall, as well as her first world championships in 2008, she fought many world-class adversaries over the next decade including Ragot, Carpenter, Seagrave, Nicole and Hannah. The were years where it seemed like for anyone else to win she had to suffer some level of misfortune. Not only the second on the all time list of downhill World Cup wins and also a five time world champion in elite, she also had a "perfect season" in 2016 as she won each round of the World Cup. After suffering an injury in Les Gets to her ankle at the Les Gets world cup in 2019, and the birth of her first child in 2021, she no longer races full time. However, rumours persist of a comeback.
Greg Minnaar (3 overall, 4 world championships, 22 wins) - He's definitely got Rob Warner's stamp of approval, and with good reason. Not only is his longevity remarkable, but also his resurgence back to the front after several difficult years with a shoulder issue in the early to mid 2010s. It's strange to think that there are any "what ifs" with Minnaar's career, but as the poster boy for 29" wheels and bigger bikes, many do wonder aloud what if the sizing-revolution had come 10 years earlier. History shows that Minnaar hits his stride and wins a world title around every nine years - don't count him out in 2030. He won his first World Cup at age 18, and has featured on nearly 90 podiums from just over 150 World Cup races.
Aaron Gwin (5 overall, 20 wins) - While he may not have become a world champion (yet), he changed downhill with his sheer consistency and mindset. On his day, he seemed to be unbeatable. After dominating aboard a Trek Session, Gwin moved to Specialized and, despite a slow start and a lot of negative speculation, came back to winnings ways. A late comer to downhill riding let alone racing, he established himself as the man to beat from 2010 - 2017. Injuries and have derailed his seasons in recent years but I don't think he's done just yet. A return to podium form with his Intense Factory Racing team shows there's plenty of speed, and potentially wins, left in him. Like Sam Hill, responsible for some iconic World Cup runs in MSA, Val di Sole and Windham.
Steve Peat (3 overall, 1 world championships, 17 wins) - There was a time where it seemed you had to be well north of six foot to ride for the Santa Cruz Syndicate, with Peat, Rennie and Minnaar all well above average height. Seeing Peat riding his 26" wheeled bike now looks like a strange sight, but his perseverance to finally win his maiden world championships was a fire that kept burning and kept him competitive far beyond many of his peers. Peat's 17 World Cup wins came against many of the other greats on this list, and his career spanned the early days of a fringe sport right through to the more established days of mainstream coverage.
Nicolas Vouilloz (5 overall, 7 world championships, 16 wins) - Along with his compatriot Anne-Caroline Chausson, dominated the world championships for the best part of a decade. Known for his meticulous approach and analytical style, he spent nearly his entire downhill career in the rainbow jersey. In fact, if we take juniors into account, there was only one world championships between 1992 and 2002 that he didn't win. He could has possibly have won even more if not for his desire to try his hand at rallying, in which he competed in the WRC from 2001 to 2006. He returned to competitive mountain biking in 2007 at Champery and was an early adopter, and winner in the EWS.
Sabrina Jonnier (5 overall, 2 world championships, 16 wins) - After winning her first overall at 22 in 2003, she would win a further four titles by 2010, finishing second in the years she didn't. The idea of French domination certainly isn't a new one; along with Celine Gros, Jonnier's wins meant that there were only 2 years between 1998 and 2010 that the overall was won by rider of any other nationality. Two world championships also followed before retiring from World Cup racing in 2012, in no small part due to a crash sustained in practice in Pietermaritzburg. Sandwiched between the domination of Chausson and Atherton, she's sometimes overlooked. However, there are many elite female riders from the 2010s that would cite her as their inspiration.
Sam Hill (2 overall, 3 world championships, 13 wins) - Similar to Gwin, he arguably upped the level in elite mountain bike racing and changed people's approach. His muted, calm style, flew in the face of what people expected of riders attacking on flat pedals. He was competitive in the elite category as a junior and has contributed some of the most iconic runs to mountain biking. If wins in MSA and Meribel weren't evidence enough of his appetite for fighting at the front, being a three time overall winner in the later parts of his career in the EWS must put it beyond all doubt. His rides in Champery and Val Di Sole are simply iconic.
Amaury Pierron (2 overall, 10 wins) - In a similar stage of his career to Bruni in that they're arguably both in their prime. Pierron though had a different rise to the top. Although he has a reputation as somebody who was more of a slow burner in his junior and early elite career, the stats don't really back that up - albeit his first year junior didn't set the world alight, but he won World Cups in second. Coming into elite, he scored 3 top 20s in his first year, before his first podium and top tens the next. A quieter 2017 followed before he announced just what he could do in 2018, when he won his first overall. A difficult time away with injury followed before coming back to claim his second. On his day, he seems unbeatable.
Loic Bruni (2 overall, 5 world championships, 7 wins) - It feels as if Bruni has so much of his career ahead of him, even if he won his first world championship way back in 2015. Whilst the rainbow stripes came quickly for Bruni, it took several more years for him to unlock the same form and success on the World Cup circuit, although he is now of course one of the most established riders on the scene, and arguably its biggest star. Much like Vouilloz, it seems he can execute a race plan like few others and is now a five-time world champion.