If you’d told me pre-season that we’d be sitting with three different winners from as many races in both the respective men and women categories I’d have said you were dreaming. But, after a breathless start to the season ravaged by weather, injuries, and filled with talk of wheel size and track debate, the state of play is a familiar one atop the men's field with two of the sports greats in Minnaar and Gwin locking horns, but unfamiliar territory in the women with Rachel Atherton’s shoulder injury opening the door for some fresh faces atop the podium.
What Have We Learned?
29ers aren’t exactly a magic bullet.
Whilst the men’s overall may feature three riders aboard 29” wheels in the leading five it’s hardly been the big wheel whitewash everyone was so fearful of after Lourdes qualifying. Sure, they may feature heavily in the results sheets but they’re being raced by guys who are in largely the same positions they were in the previous years… Now I’m not saying they aren’t faster but the advantage isn’t as vast as some touted, all is not lost for ye olde 27.5” as Gwin showed so brilliantly in Leogang.
The next generation are coming, and coming fast.
Hot on the heels of the usual suspects who have had a stranglehold on the podium steps are a wave of hungry youngsters desperate for their time in the limelight. Racers like Jack Moir, Loris Vergier, Mark Wallace and Luca Shaw to name but a few, add into that the current crop of juniors with the likes of Iles and Walker and you can be sure we have a tasty prospect for the coming races and seasons.
Carrying the rainbow stripes doesn’t guarantee continued success.
As we’ve seen so many times before just because you’re the reigning world champ and emblazoned in the rainbow stripes doesn’t give you a golden ticket to winning, or mean you’re exempt to injuries for that matter. Just ask Rachel Atherton and Danny Hart. Atherton started where she’d left off in Lourdes, and it looked ominous for her competitors until the trench warfare that was the Fort William woods got the better of her and resulted in a dislocated shoulder. Danny Hart, on the other hand, has been somewhat in the wilderness so far this year with an incident-filled few races. After falling victim to the Lourdes deluge and tasting the dirt in Fort William he climbed to 11th place in Leogang; he’ll be looking to Andorra and his previous success there to really kick start his 2017 season.
The contenders for the overalls are being whittled down.
It's tight at the top. Tracey Hannah has seized the initiative for the moment and has opened up a snug gap up front but with no room to get complacent, especially given that Tahnee Seagrave has finally picked up her first win, surely giving her confidence for the remaining four rounds. After the rain played havoc with the top qualifiers in Lourdes the results and overall looked to be turned on its head, but it didn’t take long for the top competitors to come surging back. Namely Aaron Gwin and Greg Minnaar who have taken one round apiece and look set to lock horns once again.
Lourdes attracts thousands of pilgrims each year and more recently has become an annual pilgrimage for the DH calendar. The big talking point coming into the race was the arrival of 29” wheels on the scene, it was an ominous start with the Syndicate going 1st, 3rd, and 6th… That was until the heavens opened. The race was turned upside down, the dust soon turning to the slickest riding surface possible. As the top 10 slithered their way down the Pic du Jer it was Polygon’s Alex Fayolle who’d laid down a stormer and found himself in the hot seat for the remainder of the day. Tahnee Seagrave had once again seeded first but fell back to third with Tracey Hannah edging ahead of her and Rachel Atherton continuing that winning streak, it all looked a little familiar out front in the women's...
A staple in the calendar, the weathered slopes of Aonach Mor has played host to the World Cup for over a decade now. Two almost-certainties in Fort William are rain and a Greg Minnaar victory, both of which came to fruition but it’s never as plain sailing as it sounds. For years the track has remained the same with little change apart from the woods, this year the track speared off right from the deer fence through some fast and flowing turns before a rock huck and then back into the axle deep ruts and cobwebs of roots and mud. The woods that weekend sparked some intense debate that rumbled on into the next round but not before claiming a high-profile victim in Rachel Atherton. Down and out. For how long? Tracey Hannah seized the initiative and laid down a ten-second margin to second placed Myriam Nicole, there were big shoes to be filled and it looked like Hannah was the perfect fit. It all felt a little deja vu like as with the fastest qualifiers dropping in, the rain began to fall once again. It looked like Gwin had sealed the deal going green on the split times until sliding out on an innocuous looking turn, coulda, woulda shoulda? Who knows, but it would have been very, very tight between he and Minnaar.
Bike parky, #NotSchladming, call it what you want. Leogang always seems to produce white hot racing regardless of the gripes and grumbles that murmur through the hills. After a hardtail run by Phil Atwill in practice, things got down to business on a largely unchanged, if not ‘dumbed’ down track. The high speeds claimed a few victims, most notably Remi Thirion who was sucked over the bars on the finish line jump. The result; two fractured vertebrae, a broken collarbone, and three broken ribs. When racing got underway it looked like Tracey Hannah would seal back to back wins after seeing first, but Tahnee Seagrave finally broke her duck and stole it by just over half a second. A long time coming for Seagrave who will want to keep this ball rolling for the rest of the season to try catch Hannah in the overall. Loris Vergier has had blinding pace all season but it simply didn’t come together for him in the first two rounds, however, in Leogang, he got the upper hand on experienced team mate Greg Minnaar for best of the rest behind the undisputed king of Leogang, Aaron Gwin. With that win, Gwin lifted himself into second in the overall behind Minnaar.
What’s In Store For the Rest of the Year?
Moving onto Andorra and Lenzerheide with back to back races suddenly the main bulk of the season will be complete if anyone wants to lift their hopes in the overall the next few races are crucial. Myriam Nicole and Tahnee Seagrave are those best set to challenge Tracey Hannah but will need to act on it immediately. When or will Rachel Atherton return this year? Her overall is certainly over, but race wins and World Champs will be her goal if indeed she returns. She could act as a friend or foe to the title protagonists…
Looking at the men’s it’s hard to see past the Gwin / Minnaar tussle. They’ve been at the top consistently so long and both are all too familiar with what it takes to string a winning season together. Can anyone else get a look in? Moir? Gutierrez? Vergier? It’s looking like an uphill battle but last year Danny Hart almost closed a substantial gap to Gwin with a late season surge. There’s still time and as we’ve already seen the weather, mechanical, and injuries can take you from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. Hold onto your hat, here comes a volatile second half of the season!
/ @natedh9 / @rossbellphoto