Words: Tommy Wilkinson
Images: Zach Faulkner and Tommy Wilkinson for Descent-World ©.
In our first season recap, we take a look at Lourdes, the first round of the 2016 World Cup DH series.
Lourdes, a small town in the Haute Pyrenees, is not blessed with huge mountains - indeed it's real blessing is far more ethereal to some than others. Famed as a pilgrimage destination, and the scene of seemingly higher-power healing, Lourdes World Cup would mark the perfect attack, surmise and analysis point for those seeking assurances when the ultimate faith in the Holy Grail - the results sheet - passed them by.
In 2015 Lourdes was unknown outside of French Cup races. Yet Lourdes VTT (The local organising committee) worked tirelessly to provide one of the events of the year - a race that saw British and Irish riders claim 9 top tens. Greenland and Dickson (Irl) in the Junior men, Atherton, Carpenter and Seagrave in the Womens, and Jones, Hart, Dale, Fairclough and Bryceland in the mens.
Come 2016, the race would be very different with showings that marked returns to form for some, winning habits that looked hard to break and some future stars probing the upper echelons on this oh so tricky track.
One thing was certain, everyone was looking to kick start their campaign on a positive note and sound that first bugle - "Look out, I'm on form".
A fitting reunion in a town built for observance of faith. Walker, Jackson, Masters, Kerr, Kerr and Chapman keep up their subscriptions.
With the unveiling of new teams, most notably Specialized Gravity, Trek and YT MOB (A rumour circulated this stood for "motherfuckers on bikes") there was an air of hope for some but the wise old dogs suspected that while Gwin may have suffered a slump when he moved to Specialized from Trek, there would be no reoccurrence here in Southern France. That given, Bruni had spent 2015 hunting the World Cup Champion around the globe and looked fitter, leaner and hungrier than ever. Hart was poised and Peat was back for a final season of racing at the highest level.
World Cup racing has always been the pinnacle event of gravity orientated mountain biking and the 2015 started a convergence of generations. 2016 would continue that trend, with the undisputed heavy weights in Gwin, Minnaar and Atherton still holding incredible ability to use experience and guile to fend off the attacks from what must surely be a generation that can set DH alight for the next 5-10 years - Bruni, Hart, Brosnan, Shaw, Wallace and countless others who would be on a mission to showcase that their speed was very real, and capable of taking victories.
Atherton, unbeaten since Lourdes 2015, simply looked unstoppable on the new Trek. With Ragot, undoubtedly the second fastest female until her retirement last year out of the equation, it would be up to Seagrave, Hannah and Carpenter to lead the charge and prove that they aren't just there to fight for second place.
Phil Atwill - 18th in qualifying and 39th in the finals.
There was a lot of this during practice. This chute, that claimed many in 2015, continued to be a real crux point throughout the Friday and Saturday. Come race day, the chute had dried remarkably leaving a surface to be attacked rather than feared. On a track as relentless as Lourdes, both physically and mentally, a dry surface helped retain some semblance of calm, rather then total chaos.
Observing sections like this is where the elite are separated from the just "very good". It takes more than bike skills to negotiate a world cup race weekend, and those with calm heads avoided being sucked into the race for "raw" edit clips. They knew that come Sunday, they needed to be fit, strong and ready - and not carrying injuries from practice.
Come race day, the fans descended upon this granite filled hillside in their droves. They'd came to see one thing - the heir apparent, Loic Bruni, follow up his fastest qualifying run with an inaugural world cup victory.
Seagrave took a first in qualifying and an upset looked like a very real possibility. Showing the nature of this tracks and its ability to allow riders with different strengths to gain time in unlikely places, Seagrave was 5 back at split one, but ahead by 0.4 at split 3. Atherton, though, is a true competitor. While Seagrave gave glimpses and caught the odd jab with some sublime riding, Atherton came through at the bell to win by 4.472 seconds. Carpenter was 10 back in third, and the womens field had work to do. Seagrave is still young and her riding was a joy to watch - confident aggressive and hungry. Hannah, so fast here in 2015 before a crash was a distant fourth. The top 8 women are all good riders, they are just sadly racing in an era with one stand out performer in Atherton, for whom winning has become a habit : and habits are heard to break.
Bryceland showed some strong form in Lourdes claiming a second in qualifying albeit some 5 seconds back on a charging Bruni. Come race day, Josh would still stake a 6th place, but losing time to both Brosnan and Pierron on the fast, but no-room-for-error lower slopes cost him a podium position. At this point, there was no apparent loss of racing motivation from Brycleand, who still clearly can be a victory contender.
Amaruy Pierron had a strong showing in 2015 at Lourdes, and followed up with an even better one in 2016. Riding for the Commencal "B" team - Le Blanc - this young Frenchman laid down a scorcher of a run and joined a very elite club within an elite. Getting near a world cup podium is tough - standing on one takes desire, graft, luck and incredible speed. To do it on a track that DH purists acknowledge as fitting for World Cup DH makes it even sweeter. New blood on the podium at the first round was just what we needed.
"Shy Bairns get nowt"
April - Haute Pyrenees = A sharp awakening for anyone other than those 100% mentally ready.
Andrew Neethling - 31st.
Gwin was uncharacteristic in qualifying - a near crash just after the infamous Huck, set him back to a 10th place. Those on the hill can tell when Gwin is firing on all cylinders though. Much like Minnaar, Gwin gives off an aura that is hard to ignore and when that is present, you'd be a brave man to bet against the ultra professional American.
What Stevie Smith achieved in Lourdes was nothing short of meteoric. You simply cannot underestimate the desire, patience and hunger required to see of three wretched seasons, blighted by injury, and take a second place in Lourdes. What Smith accomplished in his 8 seasons as senior was phenomenal and not many can match his performance statistics when you take out his injured years. A true great, who had perhaps not reached his full potential yet.
Practice tumbles can take their toll. Mick Hannah is a rider who thrives on confidence and enjoyment. He rode well in Lourdes despite a result that didn't perhaps reflect his speed.
It was wet and sometimes very cold in Lourdes. Being comfortable at the top of the hill is so important and removing the stress factor of freezing, damp feet is important.
Brayton. Starting to simmer in Lourdes but no where near fully cooked. 27th - Not shabby at all, but more was to come. Much more.
I believe they call this a "foot long"
The man they all came to see. At the time I wrote that Bruni was riding beyond his own level to keep parr with Gwin, meaning crashes were inevitable on his hunt for that elusive first win. With hindsight, I don't believe that to be a correct statement - but I do believe Bruni's run was on the edge of disaster everywhere and he was not fully confident in his chances of victory. However, two fastest splits gave him that confidence required going forward and while he dropped points, it was not a disaster - in fact it may have been exactly what he needed to put the pieces in place.
Flawless. Gwin took a bike many thought was fit for "punters" only and claimed a heavy victory, though the field had clearly caught him up a tad, just not enough. The notion that Gwin would falter because that's what he did after his acrimonious move from Trek to Specialized was bonkers. One falter does not make for a pattern creation, but Gwin's victory rate does have a pattern. As with every season that Gwin has won the overall, he came out swinging in Lourdes and certainly applied a pressure hold.
Smith, Hart, Brosnan and Bruni were certainly stalking the American though and with a reduced winning margin from 2015, they smelt blood - and this bunch were equipped for the challenge.