The weather was a factor in the weekend’s racing, especially on Saturday, when the organizers and the UCI were forced to postpone the afternoon’s downhill qualifying rounds after the last hour of practice was held in the pouring rain, with thunder and lightning all around the hill. Some riders were happy with the postponement, while those who thrive in sloppy, technical conditions said they would rather have raced in the rain.
With the downhill postponed, the 4X races took to the fore on Saturday. After two days of bone-dry, scorching-hot practice and qualifying runs, the riders suddenly had to contend with a completely new course—after three to four hours of driving rain, it had become less BMX-ish and more like a mountain bike track, with wide-open, loose turns, exposed roots and new ruts forming with every run. The early rounds threw up some surprises, with major moves being attempted on the first and second turns, but, despite some scares, the major seeds all advanced through the heats.
The women’s final was first, and it had no shortage of drama—Jill Kintner and Anneke Beerten came together just after the first turn and, with both riders refusing to give an inch, they inevitably went down at the second turn after rubbing elbows, shoulders and paint all the way through. Canberra local (and winner of the first 4X World Cup there) Caroline Buchanan held her line and railed through to take the lead, with reigning World Champion Melissa Buhl following closely. Buchanan went on to win comfortably, with Buhl taking second. Beerten passed Kintner in the flat grass turns to seal third and fourth place, respectively, and to keep the overall title chase a close one. Emmeline Ragot won the small final for fifth.
The men’s racing provided just as many thrills and spills, with reigning World Champion Rafa Alvarez de Lara getting knocked out by a rapidly recovering Dan Atherton. The finals were contested by the top three seeds: Jared Graves, Roger Rinderknecht, Romain Saladini and the ninth seed, Joost Wichman.
Wichman had been king of the first-turn move all evening, and the finals were no different, with him sneaking up the inside of Graves to take the lead. After that, he held his lines like a champ, knowing that whoever tried squeaking past would risk losing it in the slippery conditions. Wichman came out on top, with Graves close behind, while Rinderknecht took third and Saladini wrapped up fourth. Tomas Slavik took the small final for fifth.
With the rain stopping play on Saturday, Sunday turned out to be an extremely busy day, with morning practice and qualifiers and both men’s and women’s finals in the afternoon. While it was a long day for all concerned, it meant lots of hours to watch some great downhill racing action.
Women’s qualifiers were first up, and with the course still slick, the numerous technical sections took their toll on riders such as Tracy Moseley, who crashed in the first woods and feared she had broken her ankle. Emmeline Ragot came grinding to a complete stop in the rock section, but still managed to set the fastest time. Favorite Sabrina Jonnier took it easy through the most technical sections to make sure she got down without crashing and to boost her confidence—a move that paid off later in the day. Mio Seumasa took third in qualifiers.
Prior to the men’s qualifiers, Sam Hill had a massive over-the-bars crash into the rock section, landing heavily on his chest, shoulder and thigh, forcing him to “take it easy” in qualifiers, securing fifth place while numbed up on pain killers. Steve Peat kept his overall title charge going strong with a third-place qualifier, while his teammate and closest rival in the overall title race, Greg Minnaar, came in ninth. Gee Atherton set the pace in the qualifiers with a blistering 3:09.20—some 3.69 seconds quicker than the second-place Justin Leov.
Several riders had issues in qualifiers, including Marc Beaumont, who smashed face-first into a berm in the top woods, ending his helmet’s life. Duncan Riffle crashed in same spot, while Aaron Gwin also went down and had to use his top-20 protection to get into the finals. Cody Warren and Kyle Strait did not have that luxury when they both crashed out in semis—an early shower for the American Dream. Some surprises were newly crowned European Junior Champion Bernard Kerr, who took eleventh, with Rhys Willemse coming in twelfth.
In the women’s finals, the forecasted showers held off and the course dried out nicely, but there were still a few surprises. As was the case at Fort William, the French women again displayed how much depth they have in downhill, with the top four spaces all being filled by Francophones. The course got faster with each run, with rider times continually improving over those registered in the semis. Jonnier went a full 14 seconds faster to snatch the win from Ragot, who came in just 0.31 seconds behind. Floriane Pugin took third, Celine Gros came in fourth, and Mio Suemasa took the last podium spot to spoil a French clean sweep of the podium. With Moseley faltering in semis and finals, Jonnier increased her lead in the overall standings to 197 points.
The men’s race took place in the best conditions, with slightly cooler temperatures and a slight breeze to keep the track from drying up. The times didn’t fall as much as they did in the women’s race, but the usual suspects kept taking over the hot seat as the action heated up and fewer riders remained at the top of the hill. That was until thirteenth-seed Fabien Barel set the fastest time up to that point, despite riding with the ligament injury in his right knee that he sustained at the World Cup opener in South Africa. As the top seeds came down, each one in turn failed to dislodge the Frenchman from the hot seat, and an upset looked to be on the cards. Peat flatted out and had to settle for 38th place, handing his teammate Minnaar the overall lead with his third-place finish. Hill looked to be on track to take his first win of the season, when he was up at the first and second splits, but Barel’s bottom section was untouchable, and the man from Perth had to settle for second place. Atherton was up during his run despite a crash, but a second crash ruled out his chances of bettering his second-place finish at Fort William. Leov took a career-best fourth-place finish, while Brendan Fairclough rounded out the podium.
Minnaar now leads the overall standings, with Peat 79 points behind and Hill now in third. Atherton is in fourth, while Mick Hannah—who had a rough day in Maribor, with a nineteenth-place finish—is now in fifth.
World Cup racers will now get a well-earned break before heading to Canada for two rounds in Quebec—Mont-Sainte-Anne and Bromont.