The waiting and wondering of who did what during the off season, what had changed during the off season and who would be on form come race time was laid to rest this weekend at the opening round of the 2014 UCI Downhill MTB World Cup held at the Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg.
Friday (11 April) afternoon saw the elite women and men take to the DH course for their qualifying rounds. The Cascades MTB Park DH course has seen 4 international events (World Cups and a World Championship) take place and this year, riders had to get used to new changes made to it. Riders commented that they liked the changes made to the course especially the more technical sections added in the top sections.
In the Elite Women’s division Manon Carpenter was on form all weekend long posting the fastest time (4:39.182) in qualifying almost a full 10 seconds ahead of second place qualifier, Rachel Atherton. Rachel posted an impressive qualifying time giving that she was battling with the flu and missed official practice. She relied on her memory of that course from previous years to help her get down the course in second position. Emmeline Ragot, a familiar threat, posted the 3rd fastest qualifying time just a few milliseconds off Rachel Atherton.
It was then the Elite Men’s chance to tear apart the course and post their qualifying times. To give you an idea how fast these guys are, their times were around 30 seconds faster than the Elite Women and they posted speeds of 69km per hour. Local hero and current DH MTB World Champion Greg Minnaar posted a time of 4:07.919 securing him the 3rd fastest time of the day. This was an incredible time by the world champion as he hasn’t had that much time on the bike due to recovering from a knee injury and surgery during the off season. Josh Bryceland impressed both himself and his fans by posting one of his best qualifying runs ever in the Elite class and put himself into 2nd. Aaron Gwin was however unstoppable and hurtled down the course with incredible pace laying down a 1st place qualifying time of 4:05.298.
Race day (Saturday 12 April) was greeted with perfect sunny weather in Pietermaritzburg with not even a breeze felt in the air, perfect for the DH MTB finals. The Elite Women took to the course first. 3rd place qualifier Emmeline Ragot picked up a puncture during her run and had to roll out the rest of her run best she could finishing in 5th overall. Myriam Nicole crossed the finish line in 4th place and Jill Kintner in 3rd – all with times in the 4:44 range and just a few milliseconds separating them. Rachel Atherton took to the course and blew the previous times out of the water with an impressive 4:38.831 and took the hot seat with one more rider to go. Manon Carpenter made no mistakes and was unbelievably fast crossing the finish line in a time of 4:34.923 to take the overall.
2pm saw the start of the Elite Men’s finals. Rider after rider raced down the mountain posting faster and faster times but it was only until 3:30pm that the heavy hitters made their way down. Mick Hannah had an early start due to mechanical problem in qualifying but put in a great time of 4:01.381 that saw him take the hot seat for a considerable amount of time. It seemed as if no-one could beat the 2 and 3 split times set by Hannah. Troy Brosnan crossed the line in 5th place with a time of 4:02.675 and Loic Bruni in 4th with a time of 4:02.237. The mountain came alive with screaming fans a Greg Minnaar took to the course and thing only got louder and Minnaar posted a faster first split, then a faster second split (the first to beat Hannah’s time) but fatigue kicked in, in the last section. Minnaar lay it all out on the track and crossed the line with a time of 4:02.168 just behind Hannah and with two riders left to go. Everyone was keen to see if Josh Bryceland could score his best finish ever but he slid in one of the rock gardens connecting his chainring and damaging it early in his run. Josh had to roll the rest of his run out throwing some style in for the cheering fans. Aaron Gwin was the last rider to make his way down and he did it with perfection and speed. Aaron crossed the line with a time of 3:59.344 to take the win. He was the first and only rider to break the 4 minute time on the updated course.
Other South African riders that qualified for the finals finished in the following places with the following times. Andrew Neething in 17th with a time of 4:10.240. Tim Bentley in 48th with a time of 4:16.392. Stefan Garlicki in 53rd with a time of 4:19.287. Tiaan Odendaal in 55th with a time of 4:20.237. Samuel Bull in 57th with a time of 4:21.325. Jonty Neethling in 64th with a time of 4:24.824. Alasdair Fay in 73rd with a time of 4:33.146. Travis Browning in 75th with a time of 4:35.116.
The UCI Mountain Bike Wold Cup graced the hills on Pietermaritzburg for possibly the last time but it was an event to be remembered and a great start to the 2014 season. For more info and full results and times visit www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za
Photos by Eric Palmer and LW Mag