Pietermaritzburg UCI World Cup 2014
There are occasionally times when one regrets their bike choice, writes Full Sus’s eyes and pen in Maritzburg, Kathryn Fourie. In this era of 26”, 27.5”, 29ers, trail, enduro, DH, AM and plenty of other bikey acronyms; a multitude of combinations of bicycle bits exist that the best riders in the world can debate about when they consider tackling a specific track, whether it’s XCO or DH.
Most of the DH fraternity had started reconsidering their approach to the PMB DH track after Australia’s Jared Graves pulled into third on his Yeti SC66B trail bike at the 2013 UCI World Championships. Meh, who needs a double crown fork? Enter 2014 and Nigel Hicks (chief DH track executive of Cascades) decided he was beyond tired of all the international keyboard jockeys debating whether this testing piece of earth should really be on the World Cup circuit. Nig, being a geologist with a profound love of rock, decided to up the ante.
Stepping cautiously around the minefield of rocks in the new Cloud 9 on seeding day, it was flippin’ easy to see why people started calling it Nigel’s Revenge. If you were one of the riders who decided to tackle PMB on a trail bike, our thoughts were firmly with you. Particularly if you were one of the people upside down with head and shoulders wedged between two boulders. Honestly though, the track was pretty much prime with whisperings of “this really is a proper DH track now” floating from the lips of the humbled.
South Africa was well represented at the event, with 23 men’s elite entries and 10 junior entries. Of course, gender wise the representation was less equal, but that’s a topic of discussion for another article. Essentially though, with so many South African jerseys smashing down the exceptionally challenging track, it made for pretty exciting viewing. 11 South African elites cracked the top 80 mark to make it into the main event on Saturday the 12th of April, while all the juniors qualified by virtue of their skill combined with the low overall numbers.
Come race day, the weather was perfect and spirits were high. Cowbells, roaring chainless-chainsaws, wooden clappers, vuvuzelas and many sets of dust-lined lungs edged the length of the track. There is always something special about being able to support this unique and rather hardcore sport in person, and watching the number boards appear round corners (followed by the adrenalin fuelled glare of a South African set of eyeballs within goggles), was all one needed to be prompted into banshee shrieks of encouragement!
The juniors kept it solid, with the South African lads gaining some valuable experience in the international standard of DH racing. Jonathan Philogene was the top placing South African with a time of 4:51:69, in 15th place overall. Kevin Smale unfortunately suffered a killer bail in the rocks – showing what happens when you push yourself in races – and took home probably one of the worst injuries of the event, a broken wrist. It was said the paramedics had to hold his hand and arm separately to keep them at the same level. Typing that out makes my eyes water, eish.
The women’s event was interesting, with a major shift in placing compared to last year’s overall log. Manon Carpenter from Wales won convincingly (4:34.92) by 4 seconds over Great Britain’s Rachel Atherton, but it may have felt like a somewhat unconvincing win considering a weird virus had Rachel hooked up to an IV drip for pretty much the entire week. USA’s Jill Kinter narrowly took third over France’s Myriam Nicole. The next World Cup in Australia should very soon show us how the playing field really looks when Atherton is back on top form, and Australia’s Tracey Hannah is confidently racing on home soil after nervously making her way down Cascades to take sixth.
And so the main event rolled on! The top 80 Elites took to the track in a kaleidoscope of blazing 2pm early autumn sunshine, red dust, flinging rocks and forested shadows. Lungs burned and legs spun, wheels churned through the air and ripped for traction in the loose earth on the way down the mountain. It’s intense and also bitterly disappointing for individuals like South African David Hogan who fought so hard to make it into the main event only to be ousted by a soul destroying flat tyre. Sam Bull, Stefan Garlicki, Tiaan Odendaal and Timothy Bentley all did well to place in the top 60, while Andrew Neethling had a brief foray in the Hot Seat to nab 17th overall.
However, it’s not even worth pretending that when Greg Minnaar is seeded way up in the tippy top that all SA eyes and hearts are not set on his race. The tension rises, and stuff gets a little cray-cray when the commentator says “And the report is in, Minnaar is on track”. I actually can’t handle the antics of the One Life Minnaar support crew (especially since one young chap has dropped his beery breakfast on his shoes) and a little space is needed to really concentrate on what Max Cluer is screaming down the mic. Greg is up on all the splits, and it truly looks like he’s going to knock the Hot Seat dominator Australian Michael Hannah off his throne. Minnaar smashes the Money Maker with a right-hand head turn to acknowledge the crowd and he blazes over the finish line with the crowds going bananas. Except he’s just off the pace, Mick is safe and the South Africans look a little bewildered. As Minnaar posts later on Facebook “I lay it all down today”. It’s hard being at the top of the game.
The shock of loss doesn’t last long though, as a red-headed US devil that the rest of the world wrote off in 2013 smoothly and almost effortlessly shaves two seconds of Mick’s strangle-hold time and smiles his Californian way into first place. Aaron Gwin. Holy smokes folks, sh*t just got real. 3:59.344. In theory, if you’re not South African, you couldn’t ask for a better way to start the 2014 UCI World Cup Downhill Season.
Sunday the 13th of April saw the XCO finals of the 2014 UCI World Cup Mountain Bike series. A change from previous years, the XCO had traditionally finished on Saturday and this schedule shift resulted in riders facing the hottest day of the weekend for their final race.
Pictures from this event will typically show three things: dirt, sweat and a combination of the two, which could be termed swud (sweat mud). In many other cases one would need to throw blood in to the mix, resulting in blood-swud. In essence, a crew of incredibly hard-core blood-swuddied international XCO riders committed to smashing out five to six laps of one of the most demanding XCO trails in the world. Respect Nick Floros, you did us 5.7 sterling kilometres of African hard-core proud.
Indeed it was ridiculously hot, an element that threw many riders off their races to land up with a frustrating DNF next to their names on the Internet in the evening. However, in the Men’s U23, South Africa’s James Reid did phenomenally well to place fourth after Grant Ferguson from Great Britain, Michiel van der Heijden of Holland and Jordan Sarrou of France. Arno du Toit was the second South African home in 19th position.
In the Women’s U23 the first South African home was Candice Neethling in 9th position with Jenny Rissveld from Sweden in first, Perrine Clauzel from France in second and Lisa Rabensteiner from Italy in third. The Women’s Elite certainly stepped it up a notch with far more entries and the enigmatic Mariske Strauss did well to finish 19th with Maja Wloszczowska from Poland in third, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa from Norway in second and Jolanda Neff from Switzerland in first.
The Men’s Elite was an extremely exciting event with the first South African home being Matthys Beukes in 50th position. The rocks, climbs and ridiculous heat made for an exhausting ride and it was looking like a clean-up win for Switzerland’s Nino Schurter until he flatted in his second to last lap, ending up sixth. It was France’s Julien Absalon who took first, Manual Fumic from Germany taking second and Maxime Marotte from France placing third.