August 26/06 4:25 am - MTB Worlds Downhill Stories
Posted by Editor on 08/26/06
MTB World Championships Rotorua, New Zealand
Men's DH Photos
Women's DH Photos
Junior Men's DH Photos
Junior Women's DH Photos
On Saturday, competition at the Mountain Bike World Championships shifted from cross-country to downhill, opening with the Junior categories.
Junior Men and Women
Host nation New Zealand claimed gold and silver in the men's race, while Australia's Tracey Hannah took the women's title.
Despite forecasts predicting rain, the day started clear and sunny and, at least at the base of Mount Ngongotaha, relatively warm. However, it was a different story at the top of the course, where a near gale was blowing. The breeze was strong enough to blow the first Junior woman a bit sideways.
Canada's Micayla Gatto commented after her run "it was so strong (the wind). I almost ended up outside the tape when the wind caught me on the first steep section."
Gatto finished third, a repeat from last year, 33.8 seconds behind Hannah, who finished 4.67 seconds ahead of Floriane Pugin of France. Hannah is the younger sister of pro downhiller Mick Hannah. Pugin had the fastest intermediate time by nearly four seconds, but lost double that in lower, more technical portion of the course.
In the Junior men's race Cameron Cole of nearby Hamilton was the fastest rider on both the upper and lower sections of the course. Starting sixth from last, Cole recorded a near identical time to his qualification run. This was enough to win, when the other top qualifiers either crashed or had to slow down in the windy conditions.
Fellow Kiwi Sam Blenkinsop was over 12 seconds slower then his seeding run, but managed to hold onto silver, while Great Britain's Brendan Fairclough, one of the favourites after top finishes on the World Cup circuit and winning the European championships, finished a distant 17th after crashing.
France's Antoine Badouard took the bronze medal. Canada's Steve Smith finished sixth after running into problems in the upper half of the course. His intermediate time was 11th fastest, however, he recovered a considerable portion of his loss in the lower technical section.
For the elite categories, the high winds that had plagued the Juniors died down, but as the women were about to start heavy cloud cover began to roll in, and everyone started to worry about rain. Thankfully, the rain held off, as France's Sabrina Jonnier won the world title that has eluded her during the reign of countrywomen Anne-Caroline Chausson. Chausson retired last year, after a string of consecutive victories stretching back to 1993 - interrupted only in 2004 when she crashed in training and could not race the Worlds.
In the absence of Chausson, the list of potential winners was long, and included Jonnier, World Cup leader Tracy Moseley (Great Britain), young French threat Emmeline Ragot, 2004 world champion Vanessa Quin from host New Zealand, and Brits Fionn Griffiths and Rachel Atherton - last year's Junior champion.
Jonnier admitted to feeling the pressure of following in Chausson's tracks. "It is pretty hard, yes. Everyone always talks about Anne-Caroline, and I have ridden in her shadow for so long. I wanted to win very much this year, and I prepared all winter for this race. I've waited for this for so long, it is like a dream."
Moseley set the fastest time in qualifying, followed by Jonnier and American Melissa Buhl. The first rider off - Rika Olivier (South Africa) - set a time which stood up for five riders before countrywoman Anka Martin shaved off four and a half seconds. Australian Claire Whiteman took over a couple of riders later, and was in turn displaced by New Zealander Sheryl Macleod.
Canadian Claire Buchar was next to take the lead, but was immediately replaced by another Kiwi, Amy Laird. These changes in the lead were a few seconds at a time, but Griffiths was the next rider down, and knocked a cool 18 seconds off the lead.
But Griffiths' time in the lead was short, as Atherton became the first woman to go under four minutes, with a 3:57.80 . The young British rider's time was all the more remarkable given the fact that she had dislocated her shoulder in training, and was wearing a sling the day before the race.
"It was pretty painful, and I thought after it happened that I wouldn't be able to race. But I rested up and used the sling, and I had some pretty good painkillers..."
It would take Jonnier to displace Atherton, and she did it convincingly, taking a further seven and a half seconds off the top time. It was up to Moseley, the final rider, and she came up three and a half seconds short.
"To be honest, I had a pretty good run" said Moseley. "I think that I probably was too cautious in the trees at the bottom, and lost a bit of time there. Of course i'm disappointed, but I'm happy too - I've never had a world championship medal before."
Jonnier said that she held nothing back in her run: "I pedaled like a crazy woman! I started so fast, and just backed off a little bit for the woods. Before the rock garden at the bottom I made a mistake and slid a little bit, but I think everybody had some problems, so my run was almost perfect."
Canada's Danika Schroeter, who qualified fourth fastest, crashed in the upper half of the course, and was 15th at the intermediate split. She managed to recover some time in the lower sections to finish 13th.
Sam Hill gave Australia it's first ever Elite men's world title; a somewhat surprising fact given the depth of Australian riders in the men's field. Hill was joined on the podium by former world champion Greg Minnaar (South Africa) and fellow Aussie Nathan Rennie, who had finished first in qualifying. Steve Peat finished just off the podium, in fourth place, while Gee Atherton squeaked into the top ten in ninth position.
The men's field was extremely well stacked, with only defending two-time champion Fabien Barel (France) missing due to injury. Australia also had Mick Hannah (whose sister had earlier in the day won the Junior women's title) and Chris Kovarik as contenders, while Great Britain boasted perennial favourite Steve Peat, plus Marc Beaumont and Atherton brothers Gee and Dan.
Dan Atherton, who crashed in qualifying (and therefore started early) set a fast time of 3:25.58 . This time would hold up for 20 riders before Filip Polc (Slovakia) finally knocked a second off of it. Ten riders later Andrew Neethling (South Africa) took the leading time down a further three seconds, and he hung onto the lead until Kovarik took off another three and a half seconds.
Kovarik's reign lasted until Hill came rocketing home - a staggering seven full seconds faster. Hill's time would easily stand up through the final five riders, with Minnaar's silver medal performance still over three seconds behind the Australian's incredible run.
"I was pretty nervous waiting for those last guys to come down" Hill admitted. "Nathan (Rennie) was pretty close to my time in qualifying. I had struggled earlier in the week when the course was wet, but luckily the rain held off today and it was dry for my run.
"I'm actually pretty surprised to be up here; I didn't think I could make up that much time from qualifying. My run was flawless. I tried to be smooth; not lose too much time in the technical bits, and start pedaling right away when I was through them."
Rennie agreed that maybe he had put too much pressure on himself after qualifying first. "The track is slower than qualifying, and maybe I was trying too hard, but I still had the best run that I could have. It could have been any of us (Australians) ... we've got guys ready to hang it out - it's in our blood."
Peat was philosophical about losing out yet again on the only title he has not yet captured in his stellar career. "I don't know what it was today, I just didn't seem to be quite on. I was missing stuff by just a bit, not quite in rhythm. Earlier in the week it was definitely going better."
Canadian champion Andrew Mitchell was the top Canadian finisher in 27th place, 21 seconds behind Hill.