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World cup final Hafjell
2013 could well be an epic battle.
World cup final Hafjell
2013 could well be an epic battle.
World Cup win
The emotion Gabe Fox was unable to hide in the finish area as three of his team riders placed on the podium was an incredible insight into how personally invested he is in his team.
The holy trinity
Devinci break the code in Norway | When you look at the results over the past decade, there are most of the same old names there or thereabouts. Plenty has been made of the young guns of DH, but apart from relative newcomer Aaron Gwin, the two most consistent riders of the last five years are still on the podium at almost every race…Gee Atherton and Greg Minnaar. Ask Gee why he hasn’t won a race since Windham two years ago and he doesn’t really have an answer, only that ‘it is pretty hard to win one of these things you know!’ The frustration of being consistently in the top three but never quite making that top step is clear to see. Coming into Hafjell there was little that could change in the overall points, with Gwin having already sewn up the title with a round to spare, and many of the other positions unable to change in any meaningful way. To the top riders like Greg and Gee there is little difference between second and third, as both positions mark the season as something of a failure. While both riders will professionally claim to be happy with an overall podium place, it is clear that they are there for one reason only, to win. Thus, coming into the last race of the year the stage was set for a change. With most of the top riders feeling as if the majority of their hard work was already done, there was an opportunity for one of the younger, hungrier riders to take advantage of this and risk all for the chance of glory. The town of Hafjell presented new territory for the World Cup, as the circuit has never been to the tiny mountain town before, and few have ever raced in Norway full stop. While the scenery doesn’t look that much different to the Lake District, it is all on a much grander scale. The frustratingly slow speed limits on the roads (62 mph on the motorways...) makes getting anywhere a bit of a mission and certainly contributes to the overall feeling of wilderness.

Once teams started rolling into town and finding out that the only restaurant was a tiny pizza shop and that you had to be making at least a six figure salary to shop at the supermarket, that was all that anyone talked about for days. The price of beer was also something of a hot topic and people had a myriad of strategies planned for the inevitable messiness of the Saturday night party, not least Mark Maurissen of GT who had fully stocked the truck with Duvel. In the weeks leading up to the race, the internet was alive with chatter that due to the race being held in a bikepark that the track was going to be too ‘bikepark’. Whatever that really means, there was a faint aura of potential disappointment in the air among the teams. That all changed early on Thursday afternoon when the course was opened up for the official track walk. Riders were greeted with an epic first straight, made up of huge, well sculpted jumps, and a track that seemed to have been designed by someone who knew what they were talking about. Leading on from the opening jump section the course plunged into the woods with some steep rocky sections before popping back onto crafted berms. It was clear at this point that speeds were going to be high, and there are very few riders who don’t relish this chance to let loose. After railing these wide open berms, the riders were to be greeted by what was the biggest feature on the course, and the one that was the focal point for the whole weekend, even though it made little real difference in the grand scheme of a complete race run. The natural step–down in the middle of the track was a hot topic in the pits, who had jumped it, who had cased it and who had chosen to keep their wheels on the ground. Walking this section with the Santa Cruz Syndicate riders, much was made of how easy it looked and how jumping it first run was the only option for real men. Shooting video there at the start of practice soon proved that this was merely talk.

Nobody was even close to the speed required out of the preceding berm, and every single rider for the first 30 minutes rolled, cruised out of the turn and rolled over the natural, rounded lip…all but Eliot Jackson that is. Eliot and his riding buddy Bernard Kerr have built up something of a reputation as the circuit’s new ‘show boaters’. Bernard is known to throw suicides first run on jumps others are casing, and Eliot can pull up for a huck harder than most people think possible. Coming out of the turn where others were cruising, Eliot was cranking, with a purposeful look in his eyes. Yanking the bars into his chest he launched the gap with Bernard doing the same right behind. The huge bangs as their back wheels failed to make any kind of transition did nothing to take away the gravity of what they had just done. The rest of the track was an incredible mix of steep technical rock sections and flat–out corners on the piste, and was in most people’s estimations the best track of the year. Practice was an interesting affair compared to most of the rest of the season. Racing on the same tracks year after year, many riders do fewer and fewer practice runs as the years roll on, preferring to conserve energy for the all important final. When you have raced Fort William as many times as Peaty has, there is only so much practice you realistically need to do. In Norway things were different. A completely new track, with lots of fun, high speed sections pulled riders from their pits and onto the course. All this fun was sure to encourage risk taking and an early victim of the technical rock section on the lower half of the course was series leader Aaron Gwin, with a tiny mistake on the exit of the section resulting in a high speed over the bars and a damaged hand. This was to drop Gwinny from contention completely and rob him of any chance of redemption after his unfortunate World Champs ‘incident’. Speaking to him after qualifying he professed his annoyance at the situation. Racing for points the whole year he has been unable to go 100% in a race run, and he wanted to use this the final as a true gauge of what he can do when the pressure is off and the only thing on the line is the race win. Quite scary to think he has been riding within himself all year...

While every World Cup may essentially be a week long event, everything up to the point when the beeps begin in the start gate is merely preparation. An entire winter training, a team of people behind you and it all comes down to how well you can handle the pressure of sitting in the start gate, knowing that this is one of the seven attempts to do something really meaningful you will have all year. Some riders thrive under this pressure, Aaron Gwin clearly being one of them, but with him out of the picture there was no longer the faint feeling of racing for second place among the chasing pack. Saturday’s standout qualifiers, George Brannigan and Robin Wallner, were both in the group of riders whom history suggested would be unable to deal with the pressure. Qualifying is a different beast to race day for many riders for different reasons. Counting for a quarter of the points that race day holds, for those in the top ten these points can bump you up a valuable spot, yet at the same time a 25% haul is not worth the inherent risk of an all–out run. For those outside of the protected top twenty, the main goal of qualifying is quite simply to make it to race day. As much as the bonus points here would be valued, to go too hard, crash, and not make it into the big show is not a risk worth taking for many riders trying to finish a season with a solid overall result. Both Robin and George were happy to ignore conventional thinking.

George is something of a quiet character on the scene, going about his business and never feeling the need to shout about it. Having spent an entire season riding with consistency in mind, he decided to go for a big result at the last race of the year, and placing third in qualifying immediately proved the young Kiwi has incredible pace. Sweden’s Robin Wallner is also a rider known to show an impressive turn of speed, but for some reason race results on the big stage seem to elude him…until now that is. A second place in qualifying with what felt to him like a ‘solid but not spectacular’ run was a confirmation that he is capable of running with the big boys. Top qualifier Steve Smith looked untroubled by any of the increased pressure of being last man in the start gate, and went into the final as the hot favourite, having a full four second advantage over anyone else. As for Gee and Greg, 8th and 5th kept the race for second overall alive, but it was becoming increasingly evident that neither of them had the raw desire needed to take the race win. Race day dawned and the on/off rain of the past few days had subsided, thankfully taking a weather affected race out of the equation. The conditions of the local climate have become something of a long running inside joke over the last few seasons, with rain being the go–to weather on a depressingly regular basis, and yet for some reason 2012 has been an anomaly, with warm sunshine beating down on almost every single race this year. The battle for the Junior crown is one that is hard fought
between a select few, but receives little in the way of coverage. With Loic Bruni and Richie Rude locked in a tussle for the overall win, both riders are pushing top twenty pace on a regular basis. Like at the World Championships in Leogang it was to be the Frenchman who won out, taking another solid result and sewing up a dream season. World and World Cup Champ in the same year is no mean feat, and we will be seeing more and more of Loic in the coming years.

Nick has had some impressive results in the past, but has struggled for podium pace this year, so it was cool to see him put in a good run that he was happy with. As Gee took over the hot seat from Nick with a time faster than the fastest in qualifying, the pressure was on for Steve Smith at the top of the hill. Minnaar made sure of his second place overall by bumping Atherton down to the second place on the hot seat, and suddenly the only point of interest was the race win itself. Had Mr Consistency (Minnaar) done enough to take a second race win this year or would one of the four riders still at the top of the course be able to become a first time winner? Of Bryceland, Brannigan, Wallner and Smith, none had stood on the top step of a World Cup podium before, so if they were to take the win from Minnaar it would take a new level of speed and composure they had yet to achieve. First was Bryceland, but a slow first split put him out of the running. Brannigan next, and very few watching the race were expecting the kind of fireworks they got. On the big screen George looked smooth and composed and this was rewarded by a time impressively close to Minnaar’s after the first minute of track, however there was a collective intake of breath in the finish arena as he pulled back two full seconds in the middle of the course and then powered across the line with that same advantage still intact, to take his position between Gee and Greg atop the hot seat. Looking a little confused, he looked somewhat out of place with two of the current top three sitting below him. Robin Wallner was incredibly unlucky to have problems with his brakes, and even though he managed to pull time on his qualifying run, levers pulling to the bars are never going to allow the kind of speed needed to take a World Cup win. Devinci team manager Gabe Fox was now in the enviable position of having a guaranteed win, with Brannigan the current leader and Smith still to take his shot. Stevie hit the first straight at a visibly higher pace than all before him, and was rewarded with a two second advantage, but Brannigan’s speed over the bottom half of the course reeled part of that back in by split 2 and the race was starting to look like it might go down to the wire. As Stevie popped over the last jump and started to sprint for the line his time was ticking worryingly close to that of his teammate. With a mammoth last effort, Steve Smith crossed the line 0.400 up and took his first ever World Cup win! And so the season came to an end with both a bang and a fizzle at the same time. With Gwinny not even racing and both Gee and Greg not able to shake things up it wasn’t the huge climactic end the fans hope for every year, and yet with a first time winner and a team making history it was certainly a fitting way to end a season. Stevie Smith is finally coming up to the kind of consistent podium pace that many in the know tipped him for years ago, and George Brannigan almost put in a win as his first ever visit to the podium. The emotion Gabe Fox was unable to hide in the finish area as three of his team riders placed on the podium was an incredible insight into how personally invested he is in his team. Team managers often tend to play a backroom role, preferring to let their stars take the glory and remaining at all times staunch professionals, so to see Gabe so visibly moved by the days events was a welcome departure from the norm. As for the rest of the top five, to get through Hafjell was more of a relief than anything else. Gee and Greg finished up where they had been a week before, and Gwinny left another season on a frustrating note. Sam Hill proved he is slowly getting back to his former self by sneaking a top five overall trophy, without any big results to really show for it. With Sam on pace, Stevie having figured it out and Aaron, Greg and Gee showing no signs of slowing down, 2013 could well be an epic battle.
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