2014 Downhill World Cup #2: The Athertons do the double

George Gore Browne reports from Cairns, Australia

Putting the rain in rainforest

There’s something special about any mountain bike race in the rain. Everything seems to change. Some riders crash, some get lucky and some have the run of their life. A rainy race is the day to get noticed. Everyone headed to Australia expecting a dry, fast and fairly simple course, but after about an hour of practice that all changed. The rain came down and destroyed the course, turning it into one of the hardest race tracks in recent history. With sections now as technical as any other World Cup, and a pedalling section that was ‘harder than South Africa’, this was a true test for the world’s fastest riders. There certainly hasn’t been a race with this many crashes in quite some time, and the three-and-a-half-minute track soon became a four-minute-plus track thanks to good old Mother Nature.

Not-so-slow Loris

In the Juniors, France's Loris Vergier (Lapierre Gravity Republic) got back to his winning ways in both qualifying and finals. Australia's Aiden Varley (Giant/YVC) came second, with FMD Racings’s new signing Neil Stewart in third. Fellow Brit Taylor Vernon (GT Factory Racing) continued to show improvement with an impressive fourth place, while Trek World Racing's Laurie Greenland finished 11th – it must have been a tough race for him to make his World Cup debut at! Last week’s winner, America's Luca Shaw (SRAM/Troy Lee Designs), finished 10th, giving the series leader's jersey away to Vergier.

Battle of the Brits

The elite women’s race was a sign of what’s to come for the rest of the year – a battle between British riders Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen) and Rachel Atherton (GT Factory Racing). Rachel would go 1-1 and Manon 2-2, crashing in both qualifying and finals, leaving them tied in the overall series rankings heading into the break before round 3 in Fort William, Scotland at the start of June. Rachel won by a huge 11 seconds, showing she’s going to be strong all year. Third place went to France's Myriam Nicole (Commencal Riding Addiction) after her countrywoman, and Rachel's arch rival, Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre Gravity Republic) crashed in the rock garden.

Home crowd hopes

The two top Australian riders came into the elite men's race with high hopes for a win on home soil, but it wasn't to be. Sam Hill (CRC-Nukeproof) put together a great run and took the early lead, leaving him with a long sit in the hot seat and fifth place on the podium. Next up was local hero Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR), a favourite for the win. It just wasn’t meant to be for Hannah though – a crash meant he ended up off the podium in 14th. The rain really didn’t suit him, and had the weather swung a different way, his day could have ended very differently. An honourable mention has to go to Kiwi rider Ed Masters (Bergamont-Hayes) too. Never previously seen as a serious threat to the podium regulars, he qualified in an incredible fourth place and was looking great in finals too until a crash took him out of contention. The YOLO enthusiast might have YOLO’d too hard. 

Crash happy

Crashes were a big part of the day, also taking out Britain's Danny Hart (Giant Factory Off-Road), Greg Williamson (Trek World Racing), Ruaridh Cunningham (Unior Tools) and Brendan Fairclough (Gstadd-Scott), not to mention France's Loic Bruni (Lapierre Gravity Republic), to name just a few. The rainforest was far from kind. 

The biggest upset happened during UK downhill legend Steve Peat's (Santa Cruz Syndicate) run though. Fellow Brit Adam Brayon (Hope Factory Racing) had crashed into a tree and was being attended to by medical staff. While this was happening a fan decided to help out by taking Brayton's bike down to the bottom of the hill. But instead of walking it down, he decided to ride it, despite not having a helmet. As he went flying into the whoops section he went over the bars and sustained some pretty serious injuries himself – check out the video below. Only in Australia! Thankfully, both Brayton and the fan are now recovering – healing vibes to both! The crash meant Peaty was red flagged and got a second run down the hill. This turned out well for him – his second run was much better than his messy first run and saw him finish in seventh place.

Year of the Rat?

Britain's Josh 'Ratboy' Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) is no stranger to riding in the mud, and he used that to his advantage, putting in a great run that saw him take second place and show the world what he's capable of yet again. Yet to score that elusive first World Cup win, could this be the year it finally happens? He's certainly getting closer. His mate Sam Dale (Madison Saracen) also had a stormer of a race, finishing eighth despite a crash, giving him his second top 10 finish in a row. Fellow young gun Neko Mulally (Trek World Racing) was in touch too, proving his success at round one was no fluke. A small crash slowed him down but the American jumped straight back on the bike and managed to secure third place – his first podium position.

Minnaar out

Bryceland's teammate Greg Minnaar had a day to forget – the South African was disqualified after veering off the track and rejoining it in a different place. He clearly didn’t gain time, so it seems a tough ruling, but rules are rules. It deals a severe blow to his hopes of securing the series title though.

Advantage Atherton

Brtiain's Gee Atherton (GT Factory Racing) made the decision to ride on flat pedals instead of his usual clips due to the mud, and had to borrow some Five Ten shoes from someone in the crowd! Maybe he didn’t plan for rain in Australia? The gamble paid off – he crossed the line an astonishing three seconds up on Bryceland. But with two riders to go, would it be enough? 

Round 1 winner Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing) left the start gate fast, but after some mistakes, including riding through a rock section on his saddle with both feet unclipped, the American would have to settle for fourth place. That was good enough for him to hold on to the series points lead though. Top qualifier Sam Blenkinsop (Lapierre Gravity Republic) had a similar story to tell, making mistakes in the treacherous conditions and finishing sixth. So Gee took it! 

What a race! Drastically different to South Africa, and a massive challenge for the riders and teams. The series now takes a month-long break before moving to Fort William, where the battle will resume. The race for the overall series title is looking more exciting than ever, with Blenkinsop, Mulally and Bryceland in third, fourth and fifth respectively, and Atherton chasing Gwin for the top step. Anything could happen – stay tuned!

Check out the full Red Bull highlights video below:

http://www.redbull.com/uk/en/bike/stories/1331647665918/uci-world-cup-cairns-race-day

This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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