Posted by Editoress on 06/4/12
The Gravity series for the Mountain Bike World Cup returned on Sunday with round two in Val di Sole, Italy, and both the men's and women's competitions saw dominating performances by the winners. Rachel Atherton (GT Factory) beat the rest of the women's field by nearly five seconds, while 2011 World Cup champion Aaron Gwin (Trek World Racing) was almost eight seconds ahead of his nearest competitor in the men's race. Miranda Miller (SRAM/Santa Cruz) was the only Canadian woman to qualify for the final, finishing 12th, while Steve Smith (Devinci Global Racing), racing with a dislocated finger, still finished tenth in the men, retaining his fifth overall standing.
Val di Sole is known for its highly technical, rough and dusty track, and this year was no different, with new sections of the course buried under soft, loamy dirt that was nearly 30 centimetres deep in places.
Sabrina Jonnier (Labyrinth Shimano) was the first woman to spend an extended time in the Hot Seat, but she was then bumped out of contention by a pair of Austrian riders - Anita Molcik (Four Elements) and Petra Bernhard (Alpine Commencal Austria) - before a trio of French riders took the top spot in quick succession, with Myriam Nicole (Commencal/Riding Addiction) the first to break the four minute barrier.
However, Nicole's reign at the top is was brief, with Atherton the next rider on course. Atherton, the world champion here in Val di Sole in 2008, and coming back from a shoulder injury that derailed most of last season and saw her missed the opening round this year, was noticably faster than than any other woman, finishing 4.485 seconds ahead of Nicole. The only rider remaining was the world champion, Emmeline Ragot (MS Mondraker), who had qualified first, but she was no match for Atherton, finishing over eight seconds back in third.
"I still can't quite believe it," commented Atherton. "The track here is so insane, it's so long and physical and wild. I knew that if I was going to win it I had to put everything on the line. I had a pretty good run and nearly crashed a few times, but you've just got to risk it, and I wanted to win. In the middle I hit a rock and almost went over the bars and I thought 'No! I can't crash, I need to win!', and I held on."
Miranda Miller was the top North American, followed one spot later by American champion Jill Kintner (Norco International).
Ragot takes the World Cup lead, since Atherton did not compete in the first round, with 370 points, followed by round one winner Tracey Hannah (Hutchinson United Ride) at 322, Nicole at 261 points and Atherton with 240.
The men's race saw Gwin throw down a tremendous challenge to the rest of the field by finishing over seven seconds ahead of second place Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) in qualifying. Minnaar, the winner of round one and the World Cup leader, had beaten everyone a week earlier at a warm-up event in Austria, but this was different because Gwin had not been there.
Times were dropping steadily through the 82 rider strong field until Junior-aged Loic Bruni (Lapierre International) threw down the first sub-3:25 time with 30 riders to go. Bruni held the lead for ten riders before Canada's Steve Smith took half a second off, and Smith lasted for 13 riders until Sam Blenkinsop (Lapierre International) bumped him out by a second. The lead continued to drop by fractions of a second until Minnaar, the second fastest qualifier, held the Hot Seat.
However, despite going nearly six seconds faster than he had in qualifying, Minnaar was still almost two seconds slower than Gwin's qualifying time and, barring a crash, Gwin was the odds-on favourite as he began his run. The American champion did not disappoint; fastest at both intermediate splits by huge margins, he knocked more than six seconds off his qualifying time to win by 7.85 seconds, a staggering margin when Minnaar had beaten him by a mere 6.32 tenths of a second in the first round. Gee Atherton (GT Factory) finished third, followed by team mate Marc Beaumont, with Cameron Cole (Lapierre International) in fifth.
Amazingly, Gwin was laid back about the run that had everyone shaking their heads. "It was good, a solid run. I knew it was going to be tough, but I felt good all weekend, so I was just trying to put it together. The track was really, really rough, and I was just riding along for the ride. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just trying to hold on. I was just trying to focus on riding, and not that it was a race run or anything else, just trying to get down. I felt like I was sort of on autopilot the whole ride, but usually the good ones are kind of like that, I guess."
Gwin and Minnaar are tied at 450 points in the World Cup standings, each with a win and a second, however, Gwin takes over the Series' lead by virtue of the more recent victory. Atherton is third with 315 points, followed by Beaumont at 228 and Smith with 215.
On a more serious note: everyone was thinking positive thoughts for the very popular Frenchman Cedric Gracia, in hospital with a broken leg and fractured hip after crashing into a tree earlier in the week.
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