Photos and Words: Colin Meagher
Maribor, Slovenia's, gravity fueled World Cup saw the weather play a significant role. The first day of downhill training was held under dry conditions, lulling riders into a false sense of security. Then came a steady—and at times heavy—rain during qualifying that totally degraded the track into one seemingly endless rut.
The rain held off for the finals, but this made things even worse as the fine clay mud began to stick to the bikes and riders, making it increasingly difficult to pedal.
The fair weather of training was all but forgotten when racers awoke on Saturday morning in Maribor for qualifying with steady rain beating on the tents in the pits. With training for two hundred and seventy seven racers (241 men, 36 women) running from 8 am until 11:30 am, that meant it was time to see exactly how much havoc those five hundred and fifty four sets of mud spikes were going to wreak on the track. Bomb holes sprouted like mushrooms, and deep ruts developed all along the course as training got down to brass tacks. And at half past noon, the first big dance of the season got under way with Sabrina Jonnier of Rocky Mountain/Maxxis launching herself down the track.
At days end it was a new face on top of the women's qualifying list: Myriam Nicole of the Commencal Super Team, while for the men it was the one and only Sam Hill in the pole position, followed closely by teammate Brendan Fairclough.
"I was immensely satisfied with my time," stated Fairclough. "To be honest, I was really glad to be able to see straight. I knocked my head something fierce in training yesterday and couldn't really see straight for about five hours. But today I could see just fine."
Other riders were not so satisfied, with vision being the number one complaint; goggle tear-offs littered the track anywhere that riders could get a muddy paw off the bars long enough to rip one off.
"I couldn't see a thing," confessed Justin Leov. "I had so much mud on my goggles at times that it was like biking by Braille. I kept it pretty conservative up there"
The weather continued to toy with the eighty men and twenty women that made the selection for the finals. The threat of continued rain held off, but now it was high winds forcing the closure of the gondola that ferried riders to the mountaintop. Instead, riders were forced to shuttle up, limiting training to a single run. Even worse, the lack of rain, while a boon for spectators, meant that the clay infused soil was becoming incredibly greasy and sticky. To make matters more challenging, the course had degraded to what amounted to one long rut, liberally laced with roots.
"It was one of the worst courses I've raced on in terms of conditions," asserted men's race winner, Greg Minnaar, "the ruts were that deep. It was pretty tough. And the roots were so gnarly!"
On the ladies side, it looked to be a French woman's race to win, as the top four qualifying spots were all French: Myriam Nicole, Floriane Pugin, Celine Gros, and Sabrina Jonnier. But it was a Brit's for the taking, with Rachel Atherton taking it.
Atherton was not even on the radar for the win, as it had been a year off from racing and with a recently broken hand, her qualifying run saw her 32 .75 seconds back from the top qualifying time the day prior. But somehow the Animal Commencal rider put together a smasher, punching the clock a full 9.73 seconds ahead of Jonnier. An amazing run for Rachel, and proof positive that she's back.
For the men, it was Kona's Joe Smith taking a good grip on the hot seat, qualifying twenty-seventh, but sitting atop the leader board until Aaron Gwin unceremoniously kicked him off, with a time just under a second and a half faster.
After that, the times kept coming down, with
storming to a 3:23.42 with only the Monster/Specialized duo of Sam Hill and Brendan Fairclough left to race. Fairclough had a less than savage run going, coming almost to a full stop in a root line up top, but then putting it all together on the lower section for a podium step (third) but not fast enough to uproot Minnaar from the hot seat.
All eyes went to Hill on the monitors, the man typically favored in adverse conditions like this. Hill hit the course fast, and conditions were loose, to say the least. But Hill was having a rough go of it—at one point nearly going off course, and as a result, nearly off the podium, finishing a mere .43 seconds faster than MS-Evil rider Steve Smith (who finished sixth on the day).
Top American riders for the men were Aaron Gwin (7), Luke Strobel (22), Curtis Keene (57), Duncan Riffle (63), and Kyle Strait (70).