Saturday’s race was an electric start to the 2014 World Cup season, and definitely got everyone amped up about the racing to come. With talk all off-season of how easy the Pietermaritzburg track was, the riders were surprised to find that the top section had changed and become much more technical. That was thanks to course designer Nigel Hicks, who hoped to make sure that racing on a trail bike wouldn't be an option in 2014.
In the women’s race, America's Jill Kintner (Norco International) took an early lead and had to wait and see how her time would hold up. France's Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre Gravity Republic) looked fast and aggressive from the outset, and was up at the split, set to go into the lead, but then disaster struck – she picked up a flat tyre on the final section of the track, lost vital seconds and would eventually finish fifth. Next up was Britain's Rachel Atherton (GT Factory Racing), who'd qualified in second place the previous day. Atherton wasn't having the start to her season that she'd hoped for – she'd picked up a bacterial infection, and on Friday pictures of her in hospital had been circulating.
Leading up to her race run, Atherton had had just five runs on the track – not ideal for the defending World Cup champion. Despite that, she looked strong as she set out, was up at the split and managed to go into the lead with just one rider to go, fellow UK rider and fastest qualifier Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen Factory Team). Carpenter was blazing fast through the top section, gaining nearly five seconds on Atherton, and continued this pace down the rest of the course to get her first ever World Cup win. Atherton finished second, doing a great job of managing a bad day, with Kintner in third place – a career high for the American. Talking of Americans, Luca Shaw of the SRAM/Troy Lee Designs team finished first in the Junior category, making it a great day for the US.
Britain's Manon Carpenter was elated to score her first ever World Cup win
In the men’s race it was South Africa's Andrew Neethling (Giant Factory Off-Road Team) who took the early lead, with just 22 riders left to come down. Australia's Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR) started earlier than usual due to a mechanical problem in qualifying, and went into the hot seat with a staggering eight-second lead – a huge margin that suggested he really might win this thing. It wasn't until Gee Atherton (GT Factory Racing) came down the hill that Hannah looked like he might be in danger, but although the UK rider was only 0.5 seconds back at split one, he was trailing by three seconds by the second split.
Next up was the UK Madison Saracen duo of Matt Simmonds and Sam Dale. Simmonds finished 13th – a great start to the season, but possibly not what he'd wanted after such an exceptional performance last year. Dale rode to a career high of seventh – an incredible result, and a result a lot of people have been expecting out of him for quite some time. With the success of these two coupled with Carpenter’s win, Madison Saracen won the team prize – a huge success for a relatively new squad.New Zealand's Cam Cole (Commencal Riding Addiction) has surely earned himself a mention too, by finishing 12th despite breaking his back in a horrendous crash in Andorra last year. Look for him to get stronger throughout the year and get back on the podium sooner rather than later.
With eight riders to go, Hannah was still holding down that first place position. Many riders would better him through the top split but they simply couldn’t match the power of the Australian through the flatter middle section. His countryman Sam Hill (CRC-Nukeproof) was one of these riders, riding to a top 10 finish aboard his custom Nukeproof Mega – a great result for the former world champ, who was surely eager to get this round out of the way before getting to some tracks that better suit his famous flat pedal style.
The young guns were also on top form at this race, with America's Neko Mullaly (Trek World Racing), Australia's Troy Brosnan (Specialized Racing) and France's Loic Bruni (Lapierre Gravity Republic) all inside the top 10, finishing eighth, fifth and fourth respectively. Everyone expected these results out of Troy and Loic, but possibly not so much out of Neko, so it was great to see him up there fulfilling the potential that Martin Whiteley, Trek World Racing's manager, has long seen in him.
With three riders left, could Hannah hold on? The first to drop in was hometown hero Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), his most obvious rival for the win. Minnaar showed his speed at the first two splits and it wasn’t looking good for Hannah, but the South African couldn’t hold this pace the entire way down and finished 0.7 of a second back – an incredible result considering he’d only been back on his downhill bike for a month due to injury.
Next up was Minnaar's teammate Josh Bryceland, who'd qualified in second place on a track that many would argue didn’t suit him. The Brit also set the fastest top split in that run by a considerable margin. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be for the Santa Cruz Syndicate rider, who bent his chainring in the very first turn. Even with those problems, he looked faster than anyone else through the top rocks, and is surely set for a great season ahead.
And then there was one... America's Aaron Gwin (Specialized) had finally silenced his critics by qualifying first, and was about to show everyone that they were wrong to ever doubt him. Fastest at the first split by three seconds, he kept up this pace to take the win and put last year behind him. Hannah would finish a disappointing second, with Minnaar holding down third.
As for the technology race I mentioned in my last blog, it definitely played a part in the results, with Gwin taking the win on a Specialized Enduro with 650b wheels and a reduced travel Fox 40 dual-crown fork. In contrast though, Minnaar rode his ‘normal’ downhill bike – a Santa Cruz V10 Carbon – to third place and Bryceland would have almost certainly got his on to the podium if he hadn't been struck by bad luck. The Syndicate boys are keeping 26in alive!
Check out this highlights reel from Red Bull, who've once again stepped up their support for our sport: