UCI Downhill Mountatin Bike World Cup, Leogang, Austria, 12th June 2016
Rachel Atherton took her 10th consecutive World Cup win in Austria and now hold more consecutive World Cups than any rider in the history of the sport, beating the record set in 2001 by French rider Anne-Caroline Chausson.
Leogang is not one of Rachel's favourite venues; in the past she's criticised the track as "bike parky" but substantial work by organisers over the last couple of years has ensured there's plenty of challenges with ultra-fast straights, rocks, roots and plenty of drops, and tunnels. But it's the weather in Leogang that probably presents the biggest challenge. Fluctuating track conditions saw riders practising and racing their qualifiers in ankle-deep mud one minute, then in drying loam and dust the next. Adaptability would prove to be key – and Rachel’s G5 2.5s!
As fastest qualifier, Rachel rode last. When she came on course, fellow Brit Tahnee Seagrave was in the hot seat with a time of 4.14.764. The track had largely dried out though there were slippery mud patches hiding in the woods. Rachel started as she meant to go on, cannoning out of the start-gate to go 1.8 seconds faster than Tahnee by the first split. It wasn’t a textbook run; Rachel washed out in a couple of turns and made a mistake in the roots section that cost her time but she extended her lead at every split - 3.223 seconds up by split 2, 4.779 seconds up by split 3 and 5.927 seconds up by split 4. She gained about a second with a courageous straight-line through the rock garden and finished her run with a massive jump to cross the line 5.3 seconds clear of the field in 4.09.394.
Rachel said: “I can’t believe it, I’m so tired and so happy. I honestly thought I might crash today, I was so nervous that I threw up in the trailer! That run was so wild and loose, I knew that I had to pull out all the stops! Massive thanks to my team who always believe in me, my brothers, my mum and dad and the awesome sponsors who make sure I have the best of everything! And to the fans - hearing them shout my name is what keeps me upright.”
By the time, the men came on course the track was even drier. Taylor Vernon had qualified in 67th so was first up for the team, hoping to improve on yesterday’s run. But it wasn’t to be, two crashes, one in the middle woods section and one in the technical bottom rock section put paid to his hopes. He crossed the line in 3.59.16, enough for an eventual 77th place.
When Gee Atherton came on course, Connor Fearon was in the hot seat. Gee looked as if he’d found a lot of flow and was just 0.788 back at split 1, 1.6 back at split 2. Given that he is such a powerful rider and one of the fittest on the circuit, he should have had no trouble pulling back that time on the lower sections; he made up 1.3 seconds to go just 0.32 down by split 3 and maintained good speed through the rocks with a more daring line than anybody had taken before but fading strength in his shoulder, injured in that huge crash at Fort William last week (and bashed again during a practice tumble!) meant that he couldn’t make it count and despite a textbook-looking run that left commentators scratching their heads as to where he’d lost the time, Gee crossed into 5th – enough for an eventual 15th place.
But it was the top 7 qualifiers who were to bring the action this afternoon. Seventh-qualifier Troy Brosnan put in a huge run to knock Brit Greg Williamson off the hot seat by more than 4 seconds. Brendan Fairclough’s early mistake put him out of the rinning then Greg Minnaar was on course. Greg was back 0.7 by split one and put in an unusually loose run with a mistake on a steep right-hander and uncertainty through the rocks costing him time, enough for an eventual 5th. Danny Hart had UK fans on the edge of their seats when he showed in the green at split 4 but he lost his advantage in the final section to cross the line 1.2 seconds down from Troy, enough for an eventual 4th. Mike Jones went down in the top section then only Loris Vergier and Aaron Gwin were left on course. The crowd went wild as Loris was up at split 1, 2, and 3, and 4… he crossed into the hot seat a second clear, what could Gwin do? The American was down at splits 1 and 2 but he powered into the lead by split 3 and the race was his - he crossed the line in 3.28.68, an amazing 3.13 clear of the field.
Gee said: “I’ve struggled a bit this weekend with a shoulder that’s a lot sorer than I’d realised. That was all I had in my arm for strength, I didn't leave anything up there, it was touch and go whether I'd be able to ride so I'm happy really. Now some serious rehab before Lenzerheide."
Images: Sven Martin