Words and Photos: Colin Meagher
In most years there is one key rider signing (or re-signing) that launches most of the other moves. Last year it was Greg Minnaar re-signing with Santa Cruz that set the table. For 2011, that key rider was American DH ace Aaron Gwin. His signing to Trek World Racing instantly added a ton of horsepower to what was already a strong team. The squad–composed of reigning World Champ and podium regular Tracy Moseley, top ten threat Justin Leov, and junior phenom Neko Mulally and now Gwin–is now pretty much on par with Syndicate for the ability to garner top podium spots at will.
With Gwin's move to TWR, Andrew Neethling's contract was not renewed. "Needles" is one of the smoothest riders out there, and he took his time after his release to look around before committing to Giant Factory Racing alongside Duncan Riffle and Danny Hart. This is an acquisition that signals Giant's support to gravity racing.
A move that's been a long time coming was Devinci cycles finally committing to a factory DH team powered by none other than Canadian speedster (and World Champs runner-up) Steve Smith, formerly of MS-Evil. Devinci has fielded a DH team the past two seasons through XMS racing in Spain, but has been unwilling to commit to a factory race program. Until now. Footage online of Smith tossing his new Dave-Weagle-designed split pivot Wilson around is sure to have gravity fans anticipating the World Cup in South Africa. Smith is joined at Devinci by up-and-coming Kiwi racer George Brannigan.
Chain Reaction Cycles parted ways with long-term partner Intense Cycles to step into a relationship with the newly resurgent Nuke Proof and their DH platform the Scalp. In doing so, CRC released the whole team except Matti Lehikoinen and Matthew Simmonds. This allowed CRC to acquire the talented Joe Smith from Kona as well as Lewis Buchanan from MS-Evil, and sign on the Mechura brothers from Czech Republic. With this squad—if they can regain the services of the Buchanan and Simmonds (both injured this past weekend; Simmonds with a fractured knee cap) before too much of the season goes by—CRC will likely be a contender alongside TWR and the Syndicate for top team honors.
MS-Evil will be returning to the circuit with a few new faces and some new sleds: full carbon versions of the Evil Revolt. Keep eyes peeled for pit pics of that ride in South Africa. Staying on with MS-Evil are Brook McDonald, "downtown" racer Filip Polc and Luke Strobel. New to the team are Markus Pekoll of Austria and all around nice guy Wyn Masters, who will not be racing until Fort William due to a small crash during training for a NZ cup that saw him in the hospital with a compound fracture of his right arm.
Monster-Specialized will retain their army of three: Sam Hill, Brendan Fairclough, and junior World Champ Troy Brosnan. Other than acquiring Renthal bars as a sponsor, the team looks to be the same.
Mondraker-Subaru of Europe will again have Fabian Barel on tap. As seen in footage of the Urge races, Barel has recovered from his pre-2010 season crash and will be in the thick of it in short order. When we spoke at 2010's Val di Sole race last season Barel was trying to keep a brave face on his injuries, but was worried about being able to make a complete recovery, so it's great to see the Frenchman back on bike. Damien Spagnolo and Giordanengo Aurelien will join him on the team.
Lapierre International is looking to showcase their new Pendbox DH bike and have recruited Cam Cole and Loic Bruni to augment Sam Blenkinsop and Sam Flockhart on their gravity squad. Not to mention the fact that they retain Nico Vouilloz for suspension testing and feedback; Nico won't be racing any World Cups, but his presence with Lapierre will doubtless be felt on the circuit as he provides feedback to the squad.
Commencal seems to have not only the Athertons, but is supplying two other teams, including the "Riding Addiction Commencal" team of Myriam Nicole, Gaetan Ruffin and Thibaut Ruffin and the "Alpine Commencal Austria" team with Petra Bernhard, Helene Valerie Fruhwirth, Manuel Gruber, Mathias Hass, Thomas Schmied, Nicolas Siedl, Hannes Slavik and Boris Tetzlaff. Whew! That is a lot of Andorran-designed descending machines that will be lining up on the WC circuit…
Speaking of the Athertons, brother Dan is now expected to be making a full recovery from his horrific neck injury of last season, and will be re-joining Gee and Rachel at Fort William. Dan will be racing DH only, so no more 4X for the Animal Commencal team.
Intense separating from long-term partner Chain Reaction does not mean Intense has pulled away from the World Cup scene. The company is pursuing more of a privateer status for 2011. Chris Kovarik and Claire Buchar will be racing for Intense under their own program. As will Fionn Griffiths and Emmeline Ragot under the UCI trade team name of "Team GR" (for Griffiths/Ragot). Also, if all goes according to plan, look for "the Beast", Nathan Rennie, to make a return to the World Cup aboard an Intense as well.
Sunn-Montgenevre looks to have acquired another ex-CRC rider: Julien Camellini. Camellini is joined on the squad by Simon Andre, Yannick Pontel, Sam Dale and Joe Connell. Andre and Pontel are more enduro specialists than DH riders, so we are uncertain if they will be racing the WC schedule.
Santa Cruz Syndicate remains the same, and ought to continue being one of the strongest racing programs on the circuit. Peaty seems to just be getting better with age, Minnaar is in his prime right now, and continues to hold off the youg'uns, and Josh Bryceland continues to flourish as a top 15 rider. Santa Cruz will also retain Cedric Gracia; Gracia may have his best days behind him, but the Frenchman is never one to be overlooked, and retains flashes of brilliance.
Scott 11 will retain Nick Beer, Freddy Hunziker, Fabien Pedemanaud, Floriane Pugin, Emelie Siegenthaler, Adrian Weiss, and Mirco Weiss. Aari Barrett is out with a knee injury.
Mitch Delfs has taken over for Joe Smith over at Kona and will be racing Kona's new Operator platform for a full World Cup tour. Young gun Connor Fearon will join Delfs.
Yeti Cycles has a long history of "discovering" and developing racers: Jill Kintner, Nathan Rennie, Sam Blenkinsop, and most recently, Aaron Gwin have all been part of that program. With Gwin's departure, there was some wondering who would be stepping up. That now appears to be last year's surprise privateer, Eliot Jackson, another Motocross cross-over talent (Jackson qualified at Val di Sole—his first World Cup DH race—with no chain or derailleur, having smashed that mech in the first 100 meters of his qualie run). Yeti retains 4X monster Jared "Grubby" Graves, and has Chris Boice, Tyler Immer, Shaun O'Connor, and Joey Schusler listed on their UCI roster.
GT will again see Mick Hannah aboard their GT Fury. The freshly minted (again) Australian National Champ will be battling on circuit with Marc "Slugger" Beaumont.
Transition Bikes will see Bryn Atkinson and Jill Kintner continue to represent them on the World Cup. Jill will continue to focus on DH only, having hung up her 4Xing ways.
Melissa Buhl and Logan Bingalli will continue to represent KHS Factory racing at select World Cup and national events. Buhl has quietly been forging ahead for medical school these past few years—paging Dr Buhl—but will be pursuing a full WC schedule minus La Bresse in France. Bingalli will be racing select World Cups (tba) along with former GT grom Kevin Aiello.
Kyle Strait will again be racing for Pivot Cycles, but will be appearing only in select World Cup races.
And that's a wrap.