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Words: Max Neely + ( Secret informant ” Deepthroat” ) + Countless Forums.
This year the game of World Cup team musical chairs has been more eventful than it has been for a few years. The 2016 season looks like it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
Early on the big move was the Atherton’s displacing the entire Trek World Racing outfit, including the big cheese Martin Whiteley. I guess when you’ve won as many races as the Atherton’s have between them (or even individually); you’ve got the clout to shift things around.
I must say that Trek seems an appropriate sponsor for them at this stage; they’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport in terms of achievement and the racing heritage of Trek fits well. You can count on them to be putting some serious processes in place during the offseason ready to push for medals as they have done on the World Cup circuit for the last 15 years.
So, the questions on my mind were; where are all the Trek guys going to go and who’s going to fill the roster for GT?
Well, Brook Macdonald, Wyn Masters and Sam Dale aren’t missing out on the party bags as they’ve ended up with an unexpectedly strong looking team for 2016, full of long hair, beards and stacks of attitude. A huge contrast from the clean professionalism of the Atherton’s last year, GT seem to have changed tact and gone for a bunch who are right up there in terms of results but still a bit ragged around the edges.
After being left without a seat last year, with the help of Team Manager Will Longden, Marc Beaumont is back on the World Cup scene. He’s secured a full factory ride with Madison-Saracen, alongside Matt Walker in the Junior category and of course, Manon Carpenter. Marc’s years of experience and race craft will undoubtedly be pivotal in progressing Matt as a rider. And after a top 40 result at Fort William World Cup in 2015 without racing full time, are we about to witness a Mick Hannah style comeback next year for Marc?
Vital MTB forum has been alight with YT Industries rumours to have Aaron Gwin signed for 2016. The German direct sales company have yet to step into the racing game fully, with a focus on a fraternity of tattooed free riders so far. Seemingly a major shift from Gwin, the archetype of American Athletic professionalism. But he’s a pretty much guaranteed race winner so what better way to prove your bike than have G-Win on board.
If that does happen, who’s going to take his spot at Specialized on his reworked Demo? Troy Brosnan has certainly proved himself to be worthy of the top of a team roster but will Loic Bruni be joining him?
Rumours abound of Canyon seem to have been misplaced and with Pure Agency’s contract up with Lappierre, there is great speculation about where young Bruni could go. With a few of the big companies already pulling the covers off their new roster posters, we know that there can only be a few other places such a talent might go. Would Specialized pick him up and add him to their stacked team? Bruni is the most balanced rider in the field, in the mould of Peaty and Minnaar – Funny but not outrageous, humble but driven and blindingly fast. He is the real deal.
So, with all these changes happening, have we entered a critical juncture in our world of downhill?
It’s not like team changes are new or unexpected, but what is unexpected is the changing of some key players behind the scenes ( Whiteley ) and the route manufacturers are taking.
While Martin Whitely will still be managing riders, it seems he has taken a step back from large race programs. Team Global Racing, 2001-2003. Yes, Whiteley has been a player for a considerable period of time.
As mentioned, The Athertons are a result focused program who have chosen to pursue a strategy that legitimizes them, and DH, to a certain extent, to the broader, more mainstream media. They are essentially tacking along on a F1 style model. They must also be running one of the biggest budgets in DH, and if the PinkBike comments section is to be believed, over the £1m per annum mark. They are all great people to boot, but they have their image that they want to push.
Specialized have also followed this model for the last two years, albeit on a smaller scale, and it would be fair to say that Madison Saracen are also hovering around the more corporate approach to racing. Some riders can work with this, others clash with it, and others know where their bread is made and can mould to it.
The Specialized program is not daft, but might be about to shift considerably. In a sport with a limited career lifespan, money talks. Could Brosnan be about to share the stable with a French flyer? Credit: @tommyawilkinson
Don’t forget that Trek, Specialized and Madison are enormous business’s with layers of staffing, processes and objectives going way beyond just the mtb market.
Now, in contrast we have what I’d call the punk crew, who are changing route and focusing their budgets on athletes who perhaps appeal more to the core market of mountain bike riders.
Brands like GT, Santa Cruz and even Polygon are pushing the emotion of enjoyment rather than high-pressure performance. Their riders are seriously fast but won’t always tow the party line and, for want of a better analogy, be afraid of disobeying the whip.
Santa Cruz have been nailing it for a few seasons now….
Don’t confuse this rebeliouss approach with a less than competitive will to win though. Remember James Hunt? Ayrton Senna? Colin Mcrae?. Yep, it can work. It can also back fire badly and in a small industry, too much fun can leave you a very fast, very frustrated stay at home racer.
Riders like Macdonald, Dale, and Bryceland, need a bit of freedom to express their personality and make their speed come. A team like TWR, with all their processes, schedules laid out in regimental style, never seemed the right fit for riders like Brook ( and Greg Williamson as well. )
Then we have Gwin, the tour de force, the all American dream and a rider who the Socal forum users say has big plans and could possibly prove to be the savviest of the bunch. Branded and shaped by his former sponsor Trek into the ultra pro, and enhanced by his current sponsor Specialized, Gwin has mass-market appeal.
Rumblings around the internet of a partnership with YT, a company who operate at a different end of the spectrum to Trek and Specialized could be industry shaking news. Audi, another German marquee brand are on the radar and if he can keep focus while building his own program, Gwin may just become the 21st century John Tomac. A ranch, legendary status and a own brand business would not surprise me.
Does it add up? The game could be changing. Credit: @zachfaulkner
While the riders generally are fairly accepting of each other it seems that we have a split in brand strategy as to which way DH should go. How mad does that sound? ” Brand strategy shaping a sport?
On the one hand we have the closed-curtain F1 style approach where speed is the sole focus and on the other we have the care free, beer chugging approach where speed is a by product of fun.
These bike manufacturer players are driving the sport that the public see and as outside investment is still limited, this season could be a huge and pivotal moment as to how the future of World Cup Downhill is shaped by the brains behind the brands.
The battles on the track could, just, maybe, have a huge influence on the battles off the track .
The competitors will always retain the human side that was so prevelant in the legendary Sprung Movies, but we for one hope that is not lost. The sub culture of the DH world is what makes the sport so enticing – and there are definitely two thought camps on this. In a world of boring sound bites and non-descript statements across the sporting spectrum, we need this sub culture to continue, and the fans yearn for character.
The technology has changed, more people have more knowledge but sport is sport and does not change. It’s about winning during the time frame given to you. But does the influence of marketing and money shape how riders behave and what we get to see? Long live Sprung!
Hold on tight, she’s going to be wild.