With Pietermaritzburg done and dusted, the World Cup series set sail for Cairns, Australia. The last time the world's best downhillers came to Cairns was in 1996 for the World Championships. That race featured legends such as John Tomac, Shaun Palmer, Nico Vouilloz and the most famous racer of them all, Steve Peat. The fact that Peaty's racing again this weekend, and still competitive after all those years, is testament to how much of a legend he is, and just how much determination and love for the sport he really has. This time the big names in the pits are Aaron Gwin, Mick Hannah, Gee and Rachel Atherton, Greg Minnaar and many more.
The track is in an amazing position – from the start line you can see the beach, and teams who arrived early got to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef. I think the course designers must be big supercross fans, because the track's filled with huge jumps, big berms, an over/under bridge section and even some whoops! It looked very smooth to start with, and was easily as fast as Pietermaritzburg, if not faster, with riders putting in times close to the three-minute mark. That all changed when the rain came down earlier this week though, and by the time of the qualification runs on Thursday, even the top men were taking over a minute longer to cross the line.
Check out Red Bull's course preview from Wednesday, when the track was scarily fast: http://win.gs/1lOGqA5
And here's what it was looking like by Thursday's practice session. What a change! http://win.gs/1rrpOzY
10 things to watch out for
America's Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing) put himself back on the top step in Africa, and a confident Gwin is a dangerous prospect for everyone else. Is he about to set some new records and start another winning streak?
2 Flying Frenchman
Everyone knew the young Frenchman was good, but did anyone think he was going to rise to the top this quickly? Loic Bruni (Lapierre International) was blazing fast in South Africa, where two of his three splits were impressively close to Gwin’s. I think he'll win a race this year – could it be this one?
3 Local heroes
Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR) and Troy Brosnan (Specialized Racing) are both residents of Cairns, and both hungry for a World Cup win. Could one of them pull off the incredible feat of winning at home? This track suits Mick down to the ground – he loves to just go wide open – and second place in South Africa will have fired him up even more. A lot of people would say it’s a bigger rider’s track, but Troy constantly proves he can carry speed just as well as those heavier than him, so don’t rule him out. Brought on to the circuit by none other than fellow Aussie Sam Hill (CRC-Nukeproof), and able to practice with Aaron Gwin, he could be ready to win his first World Cup. The jungle might just erupt if a local wins, and what an ending it would be!
4 Atherton’s troubles
I’d like to think most of my predictions for South Africa were on the mark, but boy did I get this wrong! I confidently proclaimed that Britain's Gee Atherton (GT Factory Racing) was never off the podium... and he went and finished tenth. A crash in seeding could have knocked his confidence but no one's quite sure what happened in the finals. Tenth place at a World Cup would be a dream result for most, but not Gee, who finds himself in an early season points hole. This is purely speculation, but Gee’s bike underwent some drastic changes coming into this year. Could that be partly to blame? The big question is, will he have fixed whatever was wrong and come out swinging in Cairns this weekend?
5 Manchester’s finest
Sam Dale (Madison Saracen) and Josh Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) both put in incredible performances in South Africa. Bryceland was held back in the finals by a mechanical but you could see the speed was there. The fun loving pair never seem to take anything too seriously, and that approach is paying off for them. Will we see another great set of performances in Cairns this weekend, and could this be Bryceland’s time to clinch that elusive first win? He's always had the talent, and now it appears he has the fitness to go with it. One to watch for sure.
6 The young guns
Last year the UCI announced the introduction of a separate junior series, and it seems to be helping everyone. The juniors are getting more exposure, and therefore more sponsorship opportunities. America's Luca Shaw (SRAM/Troy Lee Designs) won in South Africa, beating the reigning champion, Loris Vergier of France (Lapierre International). Vergier showed incredible speed last year, and despite some huge crashes took the series win from Britain's Mike Jones (CRC-Nukeproof). Loris will be in the battle all year – look for him to try to take the win this weekend. The UK’s got some incredible juniors that you won’t want to miss this weekend. Taylor Vernon of GT Factory Racing is coming back from injury, and is getting faster and faster each race – the young Brit should be back to podium speed any race now. Laurie Greenland, Trek World Racing’s new British signing, is making his World Cup debut this weekend after missing South Africa. He won the first national of the year and would have finished tenth in the Elite category. Could we see a podium out of Greenland?
7 Women’s shakedown
The women’s race was turned on its head when the reigning champion, Britain's Rachel Atherton (GT Factory Racing), picked up an illness in South Africa. Will we see Atherton dominance back on track this weekend? Rachel's countrywoman Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen) won’t want to give away that new leader's jersey, and France's Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre International) will be more fired up than ever after a puncture cost her a great result in Pietermaritzburg.
South Africa was a weekend to forget for two riders – New Zealand's Brook MacDonald (Trek World Racing) and Britain's Danny Hart (Giant Factory Off-Road). Both incredible riders, with race winning potential, they ended up outside of the top 20. MacDonald had to deal with a haematoma, while Hart fought the flu all weekend. With these problems resolved, look for them to both make a statement this weekend.
9 Sam Hill
Well, why wouldn’t you watch Sam Hill? The most exciting person to watch on a bike in recent generations is always the danger man. Hill was keen to get out of Pietermaritzburg with some good points on a track that doesn’t suit him, and he did that. What can he achieve this weekend in front of a home crowd?
10 The uncontrollable
Yeah, that’s right, the weather. Rain has already changed the course from a flat-out racetrack to a slippery test of nerve and line plotting. Conditions overnight could have a big impact on the outcome of the race. Remember Champery 2007?
Cairns is set to be another incredible race, and will set the tone for the month-long break from World Cup racing before the series returns to Fort William in early June.
You can watch the race live here: http://www.redbull.com/en/bike/stories/1331637291915/watch-live-uci-mountain-bike-world-cup-2014