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Into rarefied air – WC DH 2016 preview

  •  Featured, Fitness & Training, World Cup DH

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Here we stand. On the precipice of what is lining up to be potentially the most bonkers WC season to date, we cast an eye over the past, present and future to decipher this seasons many fulcrums.

This will be the 23rd season of official WC DH. The inaugural season, back in 1993, was won by Jurgen Beneke, a man who was once Rob Warners teammate and a smooth, efficient rider who liked a beer and a laugh. While he may not have had the scientific knowledge or equipment assets to hand like riders do these days, we should never discredit a World Cup title forged upon high alpine slopes.

What has happened between then and now has been nothing short of meteoric. We saw one man lay down performances that belong in the echelon of ” other worldly” and take away 5 senior titles. A South African who came from motorcross, loves a red wine and has the strongest head game of anyone in DH at the moment has claimed 3 titles. An Aussie who re defined and shaped where DH bikes have moved has two, and a Yorkshireman granted the freedom of Sheffield for his endeavours has 3 glass trophies tucked away in rural Yorkshire warmed by the glow of a coal fire.


Steve was 27 when he won his first WC overall in 2002. Broadly regarded as the peak age for male athletes, Steve hit form right on cue. It’s worth remembering that Vouiollz, pictured bottom right, was 19 when he won his first WC overall. Sam Hill also took 10th a junior here, when there was no junior category.

In total, 12 men have lifted the UCI DH WC title over 23 years. 10 women. This is not a sport that’s easy to be good at.

Chris Killmurray,( Point1 Athletic ) who trains some of the fastest riders in the World continues ” With 6 months of racing and 6 months of off-season; it’s a funny old ratio of preparation, rest, and race & repeat that defines the fitness landscape of World Cup DH. The sports culture and social-system is diverse but small; trends, rumours and evidence-free conclusions run rife like wild-fire.

As bikes, track demands, travel, media and cultural demands change the peaks; troughs and fabric of the fitness landscape continuously change with them. Rider X rolls into 2015 and dominates this track or that and often competitors will ask how, why, what did they do to achieve that performance.”

So how do these factors effect who does what? World Cup DH has followed the ebbs and flows of generational shifts – some years we’ve had a flux of juniors who looked like they could take over, but the old guard have held on.

Experience is often undervalued in DH, but this is a complex sport, at elite level. is not a place for young pretenders fuelled by wild exuberance. Or rather, it is, but not where they become champions over night.

Indeed, many of the old guard are still clawing onto their positions by virtue of clear headspace and comfort of where they’ve been, able to draw on situational knowledge. That cannot be underestimated.

Peaty , while lacking UCI points , will surely feature at some stage of the season and at tracks lie Fort William, he can still perform strongly.

Gwin, last years champion is still relatively new school, yet is older than most of the top 20. An anomaly of sorts, Gwin didn’t start DH till he was 21 years old. Since then he has been utterly dominant, with a winning percentage of 41% in the last five years.

That is staggering and in individual sports, there aren’t many parallels. Maybe Djokovic.

He is the man to beat.


So without listing all those that could, what about the younger generation who not only could – but have – won races under the highest pressures.

We asked Stu Thomson of Cut Media, the only Scotsman to ever stand on a DH World Cup Podium ( Grouse Mtn, 2003, 4th place )

” I don’t think there has ever been such an open field who can take the overall World Cup, so many of the young riders now have the consistency to match their pace. Bruni showed it all last year, Bryceland has done it in 2014 and now has had an injury free winter and Brosnan clearly has the speed, plus you now throw in the likes of Fearon, Thirion, Vergier and a load of others and it’s anyone’s guess who wins…. A few years back you had 15 guys who you figured could win a race but only a handful you would bet on taking the overall. You still know Gwin, Minnaar, Atherton etc have the skills and are always going to be there but now it feels like there are another 10 guys who can also put it together right across a whole season. Can’t wait for it to kick off! “

DH entered a new stage around 2010 – around the time Gwin started to dominate. Driven by new knowledge on training, and the timing of technological advances, a wave of younger riders started to appear on the radar. They weren’t always better than their predecessors – but there were definitely more of them, and as the Atherton’ showed way back in 2003 when they either stopped working or dropped out of formal education, they realised it was possible to direct all you energy into DH and make it pay.

The old school generation started a lot of the subtle shifts that have defined a new generation of DH riders. Palmer kick started the big money thing, and isn’t it ironic he left Specialized due to them not paying him what he thought he was worth? He walked away from the sport, defining it as job and not a lifestyle. Nico, then Peaty upped the professionalism. Sam Hill changed perceptions. The Atherton’s are pushing the sport to a wider audience.

In this web there are many players who are shaping things.

Bruni and Brosnan are the results of the older generation upping their game, and their acquired knowledge being fed into undeniable talent of a generation driven to succeed. Vergier is hovering.



And now, it is not just these two leading lights. We have Fearon, Dean Lucas, Mark Wallace and countless others.

The ” mid school”, Bryceland, Dale , Blenki, Macdonald, Smith, Hart, Fairclough – We could go on. They are entering their prime physiologically, they’ve got a raft of wins amongst them and a few overalls. But are they the generation who haven’t dominated for long periods like the generation before and after?

That being said, we haven’t even touched on Rachel’s domination of the female field. Lets be clear, as thats what it is. Domination. Carpenter had raised a challenge but was of the boil last year. Rago has retired. Can Pom Pon mount a challenge? Tracey Hannah has raw speed but can she up her consistency?

Rachel knows how to win and then properly celebrate. A site we’ve grown accustomed to. Credit:@zachfaulkner

So where does this leave us? What can separate riders performing at maximum levels?

We asked Chris for some deeper insight into just what riders go through to get the winning edge As a coach it’s my job to prepare the athlete for physical, tactical, social and psychological demands of the sport, the characteristics of the sport and the specific demands of each event. Building a global foundation of performance potential that allows the athlete to exceed the physiological demands of the sport while having the potential to perform on back to back days, week in week out!

Joe Smith gets above the hoardings on his way xx place . | @tommyawilkinson Credit: @tommyawilkinson

“As the social system of WC DH dictates it’s a never ending arms race between competitors that know little of the main opponents training methods not much of their consistency or effectiveness for that individual. This is what leads to much suspense come WC #1. Unlike other sports where teams of individuals count or mechanical performance trumps all. DH is individual performance built on the work of a small, tight knit group.

This is where the coaching plot thickens. Meet the demands of the sport, the characteristics of each event; develop upon an athlete’s strengths, improve upon weaknesses. Make sure a change to a new bike with different geometry or equipment change is taken into account, previous injury, glaring holes in 2015 performance, physical work that serves nothing but the purpose of improving psychological performance is done….simply a holistic approach to athlete’s performance will be the only common trend you’ll see in the coaching of the riders who grace the first WC podium (that and plenty of strength work!).”

106A1701 For a rider like Kenta Gallagher, the transition to WC DH might be easier than for a rider who has only raced nationals, having previously raced WC XC. However, you can’t ignore the discipline specific adjustments – Now in his second season of WC DH, Kenta will be an interesting subject to follow. Credit: @tommyawilkinson

And what about the down time into red hot speed adjustments required – Maybe this favours experience? ” Strength prevails; but the specific demands & characteristics of Lourdes are not extreme, there are outliers on the WC calendar, Lourdes is not one, but if we aggregate the scores from Lourdes and Cairns; then we’ll get a solid picture of who applied themselves to the off-season homework but more telling who applied the work done to the 1 run wonder on Sunday afternoon’s.

The length of the off-season almost provides more challenges to a coach and rider than it affords opportunities. But the riders who have changed bikes or teams will have been glad of the gap; everyone is itching to get racing but try not to get to wrapped up in Round 1 and combine Round 1 and 2 scores to get an idea of who’s chipped away at performance gainzzz and who’s maybe spent too long turning over stones or buried their heads in the sand! ”

What is clear is that we are entering a stage unseen before at World Cup DH – a stage where the winning rider can come from a riding group more diverse than ever.

It is no harder to win a race than it ever was. That will never change as long as time exists.

It is , however, different. What this current crop of riders have to do is keep up with the knowledge now available – which is mind boggling and more than ever before.

While the tracks may be faster , the TV coverage higher and the money starting to get back up to, and beyond 90’s level of pay one thing will be sure.

It will take an unbelievable level of composure, focus and ability to separate the fluff from the important stuff that will define our winners in 2016.

Our predictions: For the first time ever, we have no idea. That’s why we can’t wait.

19 comments on “Into rarefied air – WC DH 2016 preview

  1. Pingback: The Knowledge – A Coaches’ review of World Cup Rd 1 & 2 | Descent World – Mountainbike news, racing, riding, bicycles & dirt

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