As fans and riders awoke on Saturday in Snowshoe, the clouds hung heavy, just as the anticipation hung in the air for what was to come, for this Saturday would play host to round #6 of the UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup.
While this marked 100th and 150th World Cup finals starts for Florent Payet and Greg Minnaar respectively, even they would tell you that no World Cup is the same, and Snowshoe followed suit. Having typically served as the series final in early September, racing in July brought high humidity and raging thunderstorms, turning an already technical track onto its head.
Sunshine broke through the clouds as the pits began to fill with fans on race day morning, arriving with horns and American flags in hand, singing Country Roads, likely fueled by Coors Light, and filled with pure excitement to see the day’s battle commence. For the riders and their mechanics, the now drying track presented a whole new batch of conundrums, from line and tire choice to suspension setup. There was much to consider this Saturday morning.
Santa Cruz Syndicate’s Jackson Goldstone was first to strike, taking the Junior Men’s win, his third in a row and fourth in total, for the 2022 season. While green lights and fist bumps may tell one side of the story, the Canadian junior had a weekend of ups and downs.
For him and so many more, Thursday’s practice session was riddled with challenges as the rain poured, filling the new upper sections with ever-changing ruts, and making the many rock gardens a roll of the dice as traction appeared nonexistent. As one of the flatter courses visited by the World Cup series, carrying speed was on everyone’s mind, but as Thursday’s practice session closed, it appeared few had found the formula.
In the previous day’s qualifier, Canyon FMD’s Phoebe Gale grabbed the top spot in the Junior Women’s field, leaving her last to drop on race day. Qualifying was a similar affair to practice, with more rain, more dark woods lit only by flash photography, and more puzzled faces wondering how to make this challenging course work for them. The cumulative effect of over 100 riders taking laps of the Snowshoe course really began to take its toll, and ruts and holes alike deepened to the point of no return. Gale crashed in her finals run after a fast first split, a difficult pill to swallow after looking so strong all weekend long, leaving Canadian Gracey Hemstreet to rack up another win on her impressive season.
Elite Men and Women hit the track for a final practice, giving them one final opportunity to prepare for the afternoon’s final. By 11am the track was drying fast, adding grip in sections, but stealing rolling speed in others.
When Camille Balanche burst out of the woods and into the final sprint for the finish, the crowd erupted, ready to bring home their Elite Women’s winner. After hugs and congratulations from teammates and competitors alike, Balanche sat down in the finish to catch her breath and take it all in. A few years ago, Balanche, was not a name associated with the top steps of a World Cup podium. Now, sat in a damp finish arena, thousands of miles from her home in Switzerland, she had the brief chance to reminisce of every ounce of hard work it took to get to this point.
Every year people like to say this is the year Greg Minnaar will begin to slow down, and so far, every year, those people are wrong. 5th place for the GOAT, his 84th career podium, and well and truly in the mix for the remaining two World Cups, and his World Championship defense.
Few sports enjoy comradery between their athletes like downhill - whether it's the battle against the track or that the shared highs and lows create a bond that supersedes competitiveness during the most memorable moments. Whatever the cause, it was in full display when rider favorite Ronan Dunne entered the start gate, not just backing up his qualifying run of 5th place, but going one place better, earning his career-best result and first World Cup podium. Hugs, high fives, and covered in beer, Dunne would remember this Saturday in Snowshoe for some time.
Andreas Kolb might be the only rider to miss a round from a broken elbow only to come back, considerably faster, and earn 4 podiums in a row. The tight knit Atherton racing crew watched as their bike was pushed to a 3rd place finish.
Pivot Factory Racing's Bernard Kerr qualified third in Friday's session, understanding the opportunity ahead. Kerr rode flawlessly, rising to the moment, and crossed the line to take the lead. Thibaut Daprela crashed off camera, leaving just one man between Kerr and a World Cup win. Amaury Pierron and Kerr traded split times, and it was all to play for in the last sector. Pierron showed everyone why he is the series leader, pulling out just what it took to take his fourth win of the season! Kerr took a career-best result of second place and is one step closer to the ultimate goal.
Riders, team staff, race organizers, and fans, all piled onto the chairlift together and headed back up to the village for the podium celebrations. The track beneath their feet was now empty, almost eerie – a battlefield left quiet now the battle had concluded. It would be another year before those roots and rocks witness what they’d seen today.
Chainsaws were revved, USA, was chanted, champagne was drunk out of new Crankbrothers shoes, and career best results were celebrated. This was a Saturday in Snowshoe to remember.