This weekend sees the 2014 Downhill World Cup series come to a close at what should be one of the most memorable finals in a long time. All three overall titles are still up for grabs and if that wasn't enough to look forward to, the series is also heading to a brand new track. Méribel, this weekend’s venue, looks to have everything the riders are looking for, with steep slopes, a natural feel and plenty of technical challenges. Repeat winners, new winners, fresh dirt – this weekend could have it all. Here are 10 things to watch out for...
1 A wild card
In the men's race, everyone’s attention will be focused on the leading trio – Josh Bryceland, Aaron Gwin and Troy Brosnan. But there’s another person they should keep an eye on. Rémi Thirion, the winner of the Andorra round last year, may turn some heads again this weekend. He hasn't had a chance to repeat his World Cup winning ways since his first victory but now the series has returned to his home country, on a track that'll suit him well, he could be the danger man.
2 GT Factory Racing
The Athertons and their teammates have had a rough go of it this year. Gee has struggled with injuries, Rachel with illness and Taylor Vernon with recovery. Even Marc Beaumont hasn’t quite lived up to his potential. At Windham, Taylor clinched his first ever Junior World Cup win, which is bound to have lifted the entire team. Could the Atherton clan end a tough season on a high note? Could Taylor repeat his success? Could Beaumont get back inside the top 10? Could Rachel still win the World Cup overall? She’ll need to take wins in both qualifying and finals, and get some luck as well, but it’s still possible.
3 The podium club
Though you’d be brave to bet against either Gwin, Brosnan or Bryceland winning this weekend, there’s a line of riders waiting for either their first win of the season of first win ever. These riders are Sam Blenkinsop, Loic Bruni, Greg Minnaar and Danny Hart. Minnaar's had a strange season, coming back from injury to then get disqualified at the second round, but in Leogang he proved he can still be right up there. Bruni's had some bad luck too, in the form of punctures and crashes, but continues to demonstrate flashes of brilliance. Could he use his home advantage to get on to the top step this weekend? Blenkinsop is coming off back-to-back podiums at the last two rounds and suits the steeper style of tracks. And Danny Hart? Well everyone knows how well he can ride steep tracks. Could one of these four find the top step for the first time this year?
4 Sam Hill
It’s hard to not write about Hill every weekend because you can never rule him out, but simultaneously you can never rely on him for a great result. Windham didn’t go well for the Australian but this weekend’s track looks more suited to his style. Hill does well when the track allows him room to do things differently to others, and when there’s just one line he struggles to put time into them. The French Alps have had an uncharacteristically wet summer – if that continues this weekend Hill may find himself back on top.
5 Last chance
All season long British riders have put together exceptional rides, and four of those riders have been painfully close to the podium. Matt Simmonds and Sam Dale of Madison Saracen and Joe Smith and Mike Jones of CRC/Nukeproof have all been within a second or two of that elusive fifth place. British riders often excel on the steeper, more technical tracks – could one of these four grab themselves a podium position before the season’s done?
6 The track
This weekend’s track only adds to the excitement of the race. Méribel has played host to many French Cup races in years past but never a World Cup. The track looks to have everything in it, from fast and wide open sections to tight, twisty and steep bits. And a road gap – every great track has a road gap! It even has an air of Schladming about it. The track looks like it would be incredibly difficult if it were to rain – something that could play into Bryceland’s hands. Check out some footage from practice here: http://www.redbull.com/uk/en/bike/stories/1331673676850/the-last-chance-saloon-meribel-dh-practice-video.
7 The Josh Bryceland show
After what will surely always be known as Bryceland’s breakout year, or the year of the Rat, he now has a very real chance at the series title. Josh has a 43-point lead, which means that if he finishes first in qualifying and second in finals, or vice versa, he's guaranteed the title. Anything less than that and it’ll all depend on how the Specialised duo perform. If Windham was anything to go by, Bryceland will be one to watch this weekend.
8 Specialized’s chances
Gwin and Brosnan are far from out of this title race and both have a very real chance at taking the World Cup overall. If Troy can win both qualifying and finals – something we know he’s capable of – this title will be his. Even if he can't, 43 points isn't much to make up – 50 are up for grabs in the qualis alone. Things aren’t as simple for Gwin. He needs to win, and have someone else beat Bryceland as well. It’s been a long time since there have been three genuine contenders in the elite men’s title race, so whatever happens, it’ll be an incredible race.
9 Home turf
Loris Vergier and Luca Shaw have been neck-and-neck all year, and this weekend the world will finally find out who's the better rider. With 20 points between first and second in the Junior category (and no points for qualifying) it’s a simple case of whoever ever wins, wins. Luca’s 14-point lead could play into his hands if someone else beats them both – if Loris finishes second and Luca third, Luca will still win the title. Can Taylor Vernon spoil the show?
10 Women’s showdown
Before Windham the women's title race looked to be all but over, but a charging Emmeline Ragot wasn't about to give up without a fight. Manon Carpenter heads into this race with a 70-point lead. If she can finish inside the top two in both qualifying and finals, this title is hers. Anything less than that and Ragot has a chance to steal the title away in Stevie Smith fashion. Rachel Atherton isn’t completely out of this but she needs to win and have Carpenter finish outside the top five, which based on the season so far seems fairly unlikely.
With three titles on the line, this is a race you won’t want to miss. Watch it live on www.redbull.com/en/bike this Saturday and check back here next week for our take on what went down.