A challenging course when it's dry, Mont-Sainte-Anne gets downright nasty when wet. The roots, the rocks, the mud…it's as if the whole mountain becomes determined to humble even the most skilled riders. The new, more technical upper section took out more than a few top racers at Saturday's downhill race. Surviving there was the difference between victory and defeat.
The course received a good soaking overnight, but the rain slowed by sunrise. The ground was still very soft, especially in the fresh berms up top, and more than one team mechanic was seen cutting spikes to his rider's specs. Though the dirt dried out somewhat, the roots remained slick throughout the race. To compound problems, a fairly dense fog draped the woods and high-speed sections, making last-ditch course corrections dicey.
The women ran first, with New Zealand's Gabrielle Molloy in the number one slot. It must have been pretty sweet to hold the hot seat, but unfortunately, it didn't last, as the second rider down, Darian Harvey, rather unceremoniously ejected her less than 60 seconds later. And so began the game of musical chairs that is downhill racing. The problem is that there's only one chair and, in the women's race, 20 riders are looking for it.
Bottom line? Sabrina Jonnier is on a roll. And when Sabo's "on," there's just no stopping that girl, especially with her toughest competition, Rachel Atherton, still sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"When I first dropped in, I was so nervous. I put a lot of pressure on myself," Jonnier said. "I almost crashed a couple of times but then I just settled in and rode. It wasn't as good a ride as I wanted, but it was good enough."
Good enough? What part of winning by 3.79 seconds is not good enough?
Emmeline Ragot—riding with a broken ankle—delivered a gutsy performance and finished second.
"The fog up top made seeing hard, but my first thought was just to go very fast (twisting an imaginary throttle), Brrrrap! But then I decided to be a bit conservative in the woods," the Suspension Center rider said. "That was not a good idea. I started to make slow mistakes and then I made one big one in the lower section and smacked my bad ankle. I had to just grit my teeth—it hurt so bad…."
Tracy Moseley came home 4.77 behind Jonnier, then Celine Gros ( +9.91) and Floriane Pugin (+10.21) to round out the platform. Melissa Buhl ended up seventh, with Kathy Pruitt in at twelfth.
With 80 men vying for the hot seat, things get a bit harder in the DH finals version of musical chairs. One thing in the men's favor, though, was that the fog lifted before the start of the race.
"Yeah, a good stiff wind came up and blew that mist right out while I was warming up on my trainer," commented Aaron Gwin, prior to his podium ride. "Kind of a mixed bag, 'cause then we had the wind to contend with in the open parts, but then that died, too."
Shaun Palmer, competing in his first World Cup race in a decade, had a rough ride and finished with a time of 5:11.33, seconds off the early pace set by Estaban Deronzier. Andrew Neethling then posted a time of 4:49.10 and held onto the hot seat until Chris Kovarik finished three and a half seconds faster. Kovarik has won here before and with just 11 riders to go, he was hopeful for a podium spot. And then along came Aaron Gwin, roosting it across the finish line at 4:42.91. Holy sheep-dip! No one, except maybe Gwinnie himself, expected such a fast run from the American. Gwin only competed in his first World Cup race last year at Mont-Sainte-Anne, and few people can even remember the last time an American stood on a men's World Cup DH podium.
"I've had some good runs in training, so I knew I had a potential top-three run in me," said the Yeti rider. "And I made mistakes. I think I left at least five seconds back up there on the track. A clean run and…" A shrug. A smile. "Maybe next time."
Rider after rider failed to top his time. Minnaar crashed up top. Fairclough finished off the pace, as did Gee Atherton and Fabien Barel. But as good as Gwinnie's run was, Steve Peat was faster still. A bit slower than Gwinnie up top, Peaty found some lost seconds in the woods, clocking in almost a second faster than Gwinnie at the second split, and stopping the clock nearly a second and a half up on the American.
Then it was down to Sam Hill, the last rider on course. Hill had qualified seven seconds ahead of Peat and looked unstoppable. At the first split he was already two seconds up on Peat's time. Would he hold on, or toss it into the woods like he did in Andorra? The final tick read 4:38.44, three seconds better than Peat. Last man down and the top spot. Hill took his first victory of the year.
"This one was a bit special for me," said the soft-spoken Hill. "My father was here, and it's the first time he's seen me race here in a few years, so to have him here, and to take the win…. Yeah, that was something cool."
Gee Atherton placed fourth (+5.07), followed by a resurgent Fabien Barel (+6.19).
With the win, and aided by Minnaar's 22nd place finish, Hill takes over the Overall lead from Minnaar, a mere four points ahead of Peat. Minnaar now sits in third, 66 points back.
Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup Men’s DH Results:
1. Sam Hill
2. Steve Peat
3. Aaron Gwin
4. Gee Atherton
5. Fabien Barel
6. Chris Kovaraik
7. Steve Smith
8. Brendan Fairclough
9. Michael Hannah
19. Justin Leov
Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup Women’s DH Results:
1. Sabrina Jonnier
2. Emmeline Ragot
3. Tracy Moseley
4. Celine Gros
5. Floriane Pugin
6. Mio Suemasa
7. Melissa Buhl
8. Emilie Siegenthaler
9. Anita Molcik
10. Fionn Griffiths