By Sue George, Cyclingnews.com
Australia's Sam Hill took gold at the downhill world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, yesterday – surprising himself, as well as those who had tipped World Cup frontrunners Greg Minnaar (South Africa) and Gee Atherton (Great Britain) for the rainbow stripes.
It marks an astonishing return to form for Hill, who won the 2006 and 2007 world champs but had a disappointing World Cup season this year due to injury.
Canada's Steve Smith made home fans proud by earning a silver medal, and Minnaar finished third. Atherton came in fifth behind American Aaron Gwin.
"I don't know what it is, but this is where I do well," said Hill of Mont-Sainte-Anne, where he won World Cup rounds in 2007 and 2009. "It's where I first raced the World Cup in 2001, and I'm always excited to come back."
Hill said that during the week's training, he had doubts about how well he would do. He was coming off two serious injuries that hurt him this season. "I've been sitting on the couch, and I didn't have the confidence," he said. "This morning's practice kind of bummed me out. I was really sloppy."
Hill had reconstructive knee surgery in February, but made it back to competition in time for the World Cup despite feeling weak in training. In the second World Cup, he snapped three ligaments in his shoulder.
"I wanted to do well last weekend in Windham and ended up in 13th, which wasn't a great confidence builder," he said. "To come back from all that and be able to win today is really great. I still get a bit of pain when I ride. I'll take some time off now and get fully healthy."
Andrew Neethling (South Africa) set the first time that would hold up for awhile: 4:47.94. Mitchell Delfs (Australia), 13 riders later, was descending the fastest, but he crashed, and Neethling's time continued to stand for another three more riders.
That's when former junior downhill world champion Danny Hart (Great Britain) rode a super-smooth and fast run to set the new best time of 4:45.80, which would hold up for eighth. Three riders later, Steve Smith wowed the home crowds to set the new fastest time of 4:40.56.
Justin Leov (New Zealand) crashed on his run, Nick Beer (Switzerland) flatted, and Marc Beaumont, Brendan Fairclough (Great Britain), Aaron Gwin (United States) and Sam Blenkinsop (New Zealand) couldn't beat Smith's time.
All eyes were on Greg Minnaar, but he brushed a tree high up and didn't have the overall speed of Hill and Smith. Then it was up to former world champion Gee Atherton (Great Britain) and last year's winner Steve Peat (Great Britain) to do their runs. Neither could knock Hill out of the hot seat.
Throughout the day, it rained lightly on and off, and it rained overnight and occasionally the previous day and night. A track that had been dry and dusty early in the week was converted to wet and slippery – more the conditions that racers have come to expect from Mont-Sainte-Anne.
"These conditions were kind of bumming me out," said Hill. "As I was in the start house, I was trying to figure out what line to take in the first two corners. The track was pretty horrible and boggy after it rained last night and later this week."
Upon finishing his run and stepping into the hot seat, Hill didn't think his time was good enough to hold up for the win. "When I was halfway down the track, the crowds were whisper-quiet, so I figured I was about 10 seconds back. No one was cheering." Halfway down was about when Hill said he started to find his groove and feel good and smooth.
Smith, on the other hand, had a blast on the track. "Right out of the gate, this course is fun all the way down," he said. "There's so much variety on the way down. The most challenging thing is putting a full run together. It's a long track and there's a lot going on."
Spurred on by his fellow Canadians, Smith said he almost got a little too excited at one point as he slid off the last jump, but he managed not to crash. Amazingly, he was racing on a separated AC joint after a crash on Thursday night.
"I had a little bit of pain, and I tried to ignore it during the race. Once the adrenaline was going, I didn't really feel it." Smith said his performance has boosted his confidence looking toward next year, when he hopes to make the World Cup podium more often.
With the rain starting and stopping frequently during the elite men's event, some racers had to contend with drizzle or outright rain while others had clear skies. Hill and Smith were able to do their runs in slightly drier conditions.
Minnaar, who has often excelled at Mont-Sainte-Anne said, "We (later guys) had a bit more rain in our face than the other guys, but that's racing."
Complimenting Hill and Smith, he said, "These guys rode really well, and it's amazing that Sam has come back from his injury like that." Having had his own shoulder troubles in the past, Minnaar would know.
Always a consistent performer at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Aaron Gwin put in another top-five performance to finish fourth. "My run was kind of conservative, and the track was kind of boggy," said Gwin, who noted how rainy the races have been this year.
"It's my third fourth of the year, and I was fourth overall (in the World Cup). I guess I'm holding down that place for now. I've got a plan for next year, though, and I think I've learned how to train better for next year."