After a long winter it’s time to go racing again, with this year’s World Cup season kicking off in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in just two days' time. The track has featured on the World Cup circuit for the past few years and creates a huge divide in rider opinions. It lacks the technical elements and elevation that some feel are necessary for World Cup level racing, instead featuring long pedalling sections that some feel are a step in the wrong direction for the sport.
Some riders love the track for its physical nature though, which gives a huge advantage to the 'powerhouse' riders and those who are willing to put in the hard work over the off-season. Aside from the physical element, the track is probably the fastest on the circuit with the biggest jumps and is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The World Cup series, which this years spans four continents and seven countries, is designed to find the best all-round rider, and as long as there are some technical tracks later on in the year to balance this out, I think Pietermaritzburg deserves to have a place on the schedule. With Cairns in Australia hosting the next round, the series is becoming more of a ‘world’ series, as opposed to previous years when it was more of a European affair. Exposing the sport to as many different cultures as possible can only be a good thing.
Gee Atherton in action last year
I’m going to go out on a limb here and give you my top five predictions for the men and top three for the women. It could be embarrassing if I get them wrong, so let’s hope I get it right and avoid any jibes from my mates! If you agree or disagree, please leave your comments below.
#1 - Mick Hannah
Painfully close to taking the win in Pietermaritzburg in the past, I strongly believe that this year it could be his for the taking. Just looking at the numbers, Mick’s a good favourite for the number one spot having finished second there on two occasions and won qualifying twice.
Last year he trained solely for the World Championships in Pietermaritzburg and only narrowly missed out to local boy Greg Minnaar by 0.3 seconds. What’s more, he was up by the end of the second split, meaning ‘Sick Mick’ had a strong final section and wasn't far away from winning.
With Minnaar having a tough off-season due to ACL surgery, I don’t see anyone who can stop the flat-out fast Australian, who's always shone at the faster tracks. With more of the tracks suiting his style this year, if he was ever going to be in the fight for the overall title, this should be his year.
Mick Hannah's 2013 World Championships run
#2 – Aaron Gwin
You may be reading this thinking, “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. Aaron Gwin? Really? Well, if you weren’t around for his stellar 2011-12 seasons, when he completely dominated everything he touched, leaving the field scratching their heads, then that’s understandable, as the American had such an awful season last year. So much so that the question begs to be asked, can you think of anyone in any sport who’s had such a steep career trajectory as Gwin?
If you’ve completely given up hope that Gwin will ever rise to the top again, then think again. While this is my ‘risky pick’, I’ll go out on a limb because I really think he can do it, and what a comeback it would be! He took 10th at his first ever World Cup and within months of riding a mountain bike too, to then rule the roost for two years at the highest level. Gwin has staggering amounts of talent that no one could figure out at first, but perhaps that’s changed? Either way, watch out for Gwin taking some wins, which could so easily begin here in South Africa!
Aaron Gwin rolling out of the pits at last year's World Championships
#3 – Gee Atherton
Possibly the safest of all my picks, but then you’d be crazy to bet against him not being on the podium come Saturday. Gee is always there and something has to go severely wrong for the Englishman to be off the podium. A good example of this would be in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, last year, where he had a huge crash in practice but still finished fourth – he’s a tough lad!
After last year’s bitter defeat in the battle for the overall World Cup title, Gee will be looking to make a strong start again this year and follow it through to the end, and with Stevie Smith out of contention due to injury, the series title is there to be played for. With regards to Pietermaritzburg, he’s always done OK there – apart from last year’s illness-related seventh place finish.
#4 – Greg Minnaar
The three-time winner of this race here is coming back from knee surgery, so unlike the other favourites, he hasn’t been doing his normal off-season preparations, instead taking it easy and recovering. Anyone else wouldn’t make the top 10 after such an injury, but the local lad knows how to go fast on this track, and with the hometown crowd he has that extra motivation to do well here.
If he can get through the first two races inside the top five, with a break from racing in May, he’ll be set for a good year. Fourth place is possibly a realistic goal for Minnaar here, but you just can't rule him out...
#5 – Matt Simmonds
Telford’s very own Matt Simmonds has signed with a new team, Madison Saracen, and with a new trainer in the form of Alan Milway, who also trains the Athertons, he could well be in store for his best year ever.
While having yet to finish on a World Cup podium, he did finish fifth at the World Championships on this very track last year. This year Simmonds has already won two races in Portugal and finished third at the first round of the British Downhill Series. With some strong pre-season form on his side, there’s nothing to suggest he can’t do it again.
#1 – Rachel Atherton
What can you say that hasn’t already been said? Atherton had control of the entire season last year and after a convincing win at the first round of the BDS this year, has the elite women worrying once more. It’s going to take a mistake or misfortune from Atherton to not make the top spot in South Africa.
Rachel Atherton in the start hut before taking the World Championships title in Pietermaritzburg last year – can she bring home the goods in 2014?
#2 – Manon Carpenter
Carpenter finished second countless times in 2013 and will want to find herself on the top step in 2014. Now, I don’t think it’ll happen at round one, but look for a strong finish that puts her in a good position for the rest of the year. If Carpenter can stay close to Atherton then if that mistake comes, she could find herself on that top step.
#3 – Emmeline Ragot
Ragot is a sure pick for a podium finish. With previous World Cup wins to her credit, you can’t count her out of a top result. She was the only rider to beat Atherton last year, and is sure to be strong once again in 2014.
Look out for: The technology race
This race, more so than any other, could well come down to bike set-up. With a physically demanding pedalling section and a lack of steep technical sections, many believe you can get away with lighter components and bikes with less travel. Last year Greg Minnaar rode XC tyres to the win, while Jared Graves rode his enduro bike to a third place finish, so what will we see come Saturday?
Adam Brayton looks to be running a 29er Specialized Enduro, and he won't be the only one...
Mitch Ropelato qualified second last year and looks to be returning with his trusty 29er and out for redemption after a fall in finals!
With the move towards bigger wheels being pushed hard by the bike industry, a huge number of teams have gone the same way, with 650b quickly moving from unknown quantity to de facto industry standard. Trek, GT, Lapierre, Saracen and Giant, to name just a few, have adopted the new wheel size into their DH programmes, with production bikes due to appear later this year for mere mortals.
The Lapierre team have been on 650b wheels since the latter part of last season, with some stellar results behind them. They won't be the only ones come Saturday
Brendan Fairclough and Mitch Ropelato are both planning to run their trail bikes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more people going down the same route. The Nukeproof and Devinci teams are both running custom-built bikes that have been adapted from their trail bikes.
Devinci will have their modified 'mini-DHer' back again, with Specialized and Nukeproof rolling out similar bikes
Now all we can do is wait until the big day to see everything unfold, so make sure you check out the race live on Red Bull’s fantastic live player and see if my predictions hit the mark. Stay tuned all year to BikeRadar for more previews, race reports and everything you’ll need to know about World Cup downhill!
The other cool thing about World Cups is all the cool kit that gets rolled out, like this Royal Racing kit and Troy Lee Designs helmet for Steve Peat