Is there any finer spectator sport than World Cup-level downhill racing?
No, don’t bother answering – it should have been obvious that was a rhetorical question.
And after a season full of gripping races last year – including Aaron Gwin’s chainless victory at Leogang and Loic Bruni’s hugely popular World Championship win – it looks like 2016 is going to be EVEN BETTER.
Aaron Gwin will be defending the crown that he won in convincing style in 2015, this year riding a YT Industries Tues instead of a Specialized Demo.
He famously had big problems settling when he moved from Trek to Specialized bikes, but it would be naïve to expect such a focused athlete to make the same mistake again.
He’s still clearly the man to beat – but what makes the 2016 season so exciting is that there are more riders than ever who – on their day – are capable of doing that.
His main challenger this year could be young Frenchman Loic Bruni – who is actually above Gwin in the UCI rankings for downhill thanks to his World Champs victory.
Yes, I realise nobody cares about those rankings, but they do highlight the fact that Bruni has swiftly become the sport’s new “Mr Consistency” – a crown previously held by Greg Minnaar.
Bruni will be riding Gwin’s old Demo, figuratively speaking, after signing to ride for Specialized in a last-minute deal – but he’ll still be riding alongside Loris Vergier in the same team set-up that served them well at Lapierre.
The big S also sponsor Gwin’s other biggest rival – to my mind – in the form of pint-sized pinner Troy Brosnan.
The Aussie seems to have even more raw speed than his former teammate, putting in some stunning performances last season but crashing a little too often.
If he can just manage to find the balance – as Gwin does – he’ll be devastating.
Greg Minnaar had something of a renaissance last year, notching up his 18th World Cup victory at Lenzerheide – the biggest haul of wins in the sport’s history – and he can certainly win again.
Of course there’s also his team mate Josh Bryceland – who struggled with injury last year but will be keen to prove his World Cup overall from 2014 wasn’t a one-off.
Ratboy’s easy speed and relaxed approach (he says he gets nerves but I don’t believe him) make him a podium threat at any round.
And we mustn’t forget former World Cup champ Gee Atherton, one of the most competitive riders on the scene and this year riding a Trek Session – but still with the same support crew that he, sister Rachel and big brother Dan have built around themselves over the past few years.
Gee hasn’t been on the top step since Cairns in 2014 – but is still totally capable of getting up there again.
It’s testament to the strength of the male field that I can get this far without mentioning the legend that is Sam Hill – arguably the most exciting and influential downhill racer of the last decade – and the flat pedal thunder has proved that he still has his infamous speed and eye for an inside line.
Hill comes from the same fast-and-loose mould as former World Champion Danny Hart, frighteningly quick fellow Aussie Connor Fearon and his own CRC/Paypal teammate Mike Jones – the wild Welshman who looks like the brightest hope for the future of British DH.
Remember a few years ago when it seemed like only Gee, Greg, Sam or Peaty could actually win races?
Now it feels like any of the racers mentioned above could take a win – along with past winners like Remi Thirion and Brook Macdonald and strong second-tier riders like Marcelo Guttierez Villegas or Sam Dale.
And then there’s 2013 World Cup champ Steve Smith – undoubtedly one of the most-talented and dedicated riders on the circuit but held back by injury and a loss of form in recent years.
If he can “do a Sam Hill” and get his speed back then he could be a podium or even a series contender.
The female side of the discipline also has a strong and increasingly fast and talented field, but being so much smaller it’s inevitably a bit more predictable than the men’s.
But let’s be honest – this is mainly due to the presence of one woman – the utterly dominant Rachel Atherton.
The reigning World Cup champion and World Champion only ceded the top step of the podium in one race last year – and then she came second despite an illness.
Rachel’s got some impressive competition in the form of fellow Brits Manon Carpenter and Tahnee Seagrave, but its hard not to feel that they and her old rival Emmeline Ragot are looking on in dismay at just how much quicker she is.
It’s good news that Ragot looks likely to be racing again this season – despite announcing her retirement from WC DH last year. The tracks lined-up for 2016 will suit her and she may be the woman Rachel fears the most.
There are seven rounds of the UCI World Cup series, with the World Championship providing an eighth race as an encore in September.
April 9-10 – Lourdes, France
April 23-24 – Cairns, Australia
June 4-5 – Fort William, Scotland
June 11-12 – Leogang, Austria
July 9-10 – Lenzerheide, Switzerland
August 6-7 – Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada
September 3-4 -Vallnord, Andorra
September 6-11: UCI World Championships, Val di Sole, Italy
The action kicks off on the steep and gnarly track at Lourdes, France, on April 10 – and bearing in mind the current speeds in men’s DH it could simply be a case of who’s lucky enough to stay on the bike as they stay off the brakes.
Sam Hill is the first name that springs to mind, but it really could be anyone of 10 or 12 riders.
For the women I think that one will be Rachel or Ragot – or Tahnee if they both crash.
Later in April the action moves to Cairns in Australia and a track that’s a bit of an unknown quantity – unless it rains and turns into a slopfest again of course.
Video footage of the track suggests it’s pretty old-school DH in a dense jungle – really hard to predict. Can local lass Tracey Hannah pip Rachel Atherton? Probably not TBH.
There’s a bit of a gap before Fort William in early June – and a track that, as gnarly as it is for us mortals to ride, will probably be decided on fitness and strength.
Rachel is a dead cert if she’s racing and I reckon Gwin or Brosnan from the men – the former pulverising the Scottish rocks into submission and the latter just floating over them.
Straight to Leogang the week after Fort Bill and the Austrian resort’s track was much improved last year, with more rocks and trees and less bike park stuff.
This could go to any of the blokes, though Gwin won without a chain there last year so who’s gonna bet against him?
Lenzerheide in early July looked a similar kind of track and was popular with the racers. It’s also another one that doesn’t appear most-suited to any of the men in particular.
Mont-Sainte-Anne in Canada in early August is another long, physical track and let’s be honest Rachel is pretty much the favourite for all the women’s races so I’ll just discuss the men for the rest of them.
It’s an old-school DH track so I’d pick an old hand like Gee, Greg or maybe Bryceland (well, he’s been around a long time now) to win, if Gwin doesn’t.
Vallnord follows in the first week of September and has rapidly become a fan and rider favourite thanks to its steep and technical course which has seen wins from local racer Remi Thirion and from Loic Bruni at last year’s World Championship.
So those two will of course be among the favourites, along with Gwin, Brosnan, Bryceland, Hart and – of course – Sam Hill.
The season is capped off with the World Champs at probably the toughest venue on the circuit, Val di Sole in Italy.
Steep, rocky, rooty and usually covered in deep dust, it’s another “all or nothing” race – and has previously seen two of the most awe-inspiring runs in DH history from Sam Hill and Aaron Gwin.
Hill famously took a tumble on the grass in the final furlong of an unbelievably fast run at the 2008 World Champs, losing to Gee Atherton, while Gwin annihilated the opposition by nearly eight seconds in 2012 – leaving the rest of the field stunned by his speed, his strength and the stiffness of his suspension.
Both are in with a shout of grabbing the rainbow jersey again – and surprisingly Gwin has never worn it – but they’ll face stiff competition from the three Bs (Brosnan, Bryceland and Bruni) as well as wild speed merchants like Connor Fearon, Mike Jones and Danny Hart.
Expect to see more than a few tumbles as everyone goes balls to the wall at the end of the season.
The races will all be streamed live on Red Bull TV, with the inimitable Rob Warner commentating – hopefully assisted by Claudio Calouri once again.
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