The fifth and final day of the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Québec, Canada, was dedicated to downhill finals. In the Men Elite and Women Junior races the reigning UCI World Champions were amongst the favourites. But with Britain’s Rachel Atherton injured and Kade Edwards having moved up a category, we started the day knowing we’d have at least two new UCI World Champions.
At 2.9km long and with its 586m vertical drop, the course is steep and fast. Over the years its features have made and tamed many fine riders: ‘Autoroute pour l’enfer’ (Highway to Hell) is technical, and then there’s the super-fast section into the 6m ‘Steve Smith Drop’, the treacherous ‘Les Dalles’ rock garden and the ‘Pont des Irlandais’ (Irish bridge), that we saw the XCO riders power underneath the previous day but which for the DHI riders is a step-up jump.
Mont-Sainte-Anne is a course that demands respect. This year’s four UCI DHI World Champions have mastered it: Austria’s Valentina Höll, Australia’s Kye A'Hern, France’s Myriam Nicole and the irrepressible Loïc Bruni.
UCI Women Junior DHI: Highway to Höll
Most expectations ahead of the Junior Women DHI were that the same three riders from the 2018 podium would step up again this year – Valentina Höll (AUT), Anna Newkirk (USA) and Mille Johnset (NOR) – they’ve won all 2019’s UCI World Cup races between them so far. In fact, Nastasia Gimenez (FRA) is the only rider to squeeze one of the top three off the podium throughout the year’s World Cup races to date. But even with a rider of Höll’s dominance looking to defend her rainbow jersey, finals don’t always go to plan...
It was a nervy start to the day’s first race as the first rider down, Canada’s Bailey Goldstone, crashed badly approaching the midway point and racing was halted. When the action restarted, with an amended order to allow the riders who were on track to recover and return to the starting hut, Fiona Murray (NZL) showed no nerves posting a quick time of 5:48.445, which would have seen the New Zealander in the top 3 had this been the qualification session.
Murray stayed in the hot seat as five of the remaining 12 riders descended, until Gimenez went quicker, and then Johnset set a blistering time, taking 25 seconds out of the French rider. Next came Newkirk, who threatened, then settled into second place, before it was time for Höll’s run. The Austrian lit up the split times in every sector taking whole seconds out of the rest of the field, just as she had in qualification.
But there were four more riders to follow Höll – could any of them upset the order? That turned out to be too much to expect for the remaining competitors, so after a nervous pause we celebrate the same three riders on the podium as last year and the same winner, but with silver and bronze riders switching positions – Valentina Höll a super champion again with a stunning time of 5:01.033, from Mille Johnset, (+12.928) and Anna Newkirk.
UCI Men Junior DHI: A’Hern claims the top step
As the UCI Men Junior DHI final got underway in the warm Québec morning sunshine, Australian Kye A'Hern – silver medalist in the 2018 UCI World Championships – New Zealander Tuhoto-Ariki Pene and Frenchman Thibaut Dapréla were among the favourites. But as in any one-run DHI competition, all the hard work and brilliant talent can come undone in a moment of misfortune or misjudgment. Here’s how it went:
Ireland’s Ronan Dunne set the early pace, holding the hot seat as 10 more riders ran, until Dante Silva (USA) lit up the final two sectors and came home in 4:27.482. When, after 20 of the 51 riders had completed, Joseph Foresta came close to his time, there were five Americans in the top eight spots, until just a few minutes later Antoine Vidal (FRA) stormed to the number 1 position, more than eight seconds clear.
Planet Earth may well have shaken on its axis when Canada’s Elliot Jamieson slotted into second behind him with only ten riders left to go, but what a quality group those ten were. Cue more huge cheers as Canada’s Lucas Cruz, Patrick Leffey and Seth Sherlock came in hot, before Australia’s Luke Meier-Smith split the four riders from the host nation.
A'Hern got faster the further he progressed down the run and went into first place. Pene looked set to take the lead but lost out at the final sector, coming in third and knocking the Canadians out of the medals, leaving just Dapréla to go. The Frenchman began with blistering pace, fastest in the first sector, then slipping to second, third… and ending the run in fifth position.
A gripping contest from start to finish, with less than two seconds covering the top five, the UCI Men Junior DHI finished with the gold medal and rainbow jersey for Australia’s Kye A'Hern in a winning time of 4:17.776, silver for Frenchman Antoine Vidal, +1.144 and bronze – New Zealand’s first medal of the championships – for Tuhoto-Ariki Pene, +1.294. Incredible drama!
UCI Women Elite DHI: Nicole’s comeback is complete
With no number 1 plate as Atherton is unable to race, of the 25 starters in the Women Elite DHI it was the top five qualifiers who had shown their pace: Myriam Nicole (FRA), Tracey Hannah (AUS), Marine Cabirou (FRA), Emilie Siegenthaler (SUI) and Tahnée Seagrave (GBR) all looked capable of the win. Was this Hannah’s best chance? And with 29-year-old Nicole and 24-year-old Seagrave both returning from injury, would their freshness and fitness count?
USA rider Samantha Soriano set the early pace before Vaea Verbeeck of Canada drew the big cheers from the home crowd as she pushed ahead by a huge margin of 16sec. There was another loud shout for 2017 UCI World Champion Miranda Miller, but it wasn’t the day for this Canadian as she dropped into second place.
Then, with the running order decided by world rankings, Nicole went – and wow – took the lead by 18.8 seconds. One-by-one the middle order ran and no-one came close until fellow Frenchwoman Melanie Chappaz came into second place – though still 18sec down.
Then Seagrave, so close, +1.2 for the British rider going into silver medal position. And Siegenthaler – consistently fast, and slotting into third, +5.4. Eleonora Farina of Italy? Fourth. Camille Balanche (SUI) set off fast but put herself out of contention by running off track. Veronica Widmann (ITA) was running on the limit but crashed out at high speed.
Nicole was assured a medal, but could she hold off her compatriot Cabirou – Junior UCI World Champion in 2015 – and the multiple UCI World Championships podium finisher Hannah for the win? Cabirou ran fast and close, but crossed the line in third. Hannah went hard but just couldn’t match the pace and faded to fourth.
The fairy-tale comeback for the injury-prone French star was complete. Myriam Nicole claimed the rainbow jersey with a winning run of 4:19.607. Almost as impressive a comeback, Seagrave took the silver medal, and Cabirou the bronze, extending France’s medal haul.
UCI Men Elite DHI: super-Bruni delivers
With French riders dominant in the Men Elite DHI the big question was could Loïc Bruni get his fourth world title and become only the second man ever to win three in a row? While his compatriots Loris Vergier and Amaury Pierron supported his efforts for their nation, they also wanted the rainbow jersey for themselves, as would a host of other riders.
With the hard-charging New Zealander Brook MacDonald (second in qualifying) out having sustained a spinal injury in a training crash, the fancied competition came from the evergreen Greg Minnaar (RSA), Troy Brosnan and Dean Lucas (AUS) and their countryman Jack Moir who impressed in qualifying, Great Britain’s Danny Hart (fastest in qualifying) and Great Britain’s Laurie Greenland. The USA’s Luca Shaw, Charlie Harrison, Aaron Gwin and Dakota Norton were out to impress, as was Canada’s Mark Wallace while his countryman Finn Iles wanted to channel the spirit of Stevie Smith.
In the warm afternoon sunshine the pace was high and everyone was pushing to the max – with some riders crashing, slipping and suffering mechanicals and punctures in pursuit of the ultimate prize. In the absence of MacDonald it was another New Zealander, Matt Walker, who set the early pace, holding the hot seat with 4:12.492 as 30 more riders hurtled by. Figures of the calibre of Gwin came and went, until Norton lit up the first three sectors green… and held his advantage to the line to take the lead. Harrison hit fourth. Shaw claimed second.
Finn Iles put a great run together and took the lead by half a second – to a deafening roar, and his west coast friend Wallace soon came in third. A gloveless Lucas looked on for a podium but took a high-speed tumble over the bars.
Into the top 10 and the 37-year-old three-time World Champion Minnaar – who won his first title in 2003 – put in a masterful run and pulled out a 1.8sec lead. Straight away Greenland went green, but a rear puncture pushed him down to silver position. Vergier’s crash in sector 2 meant just four riders could beat the South African.
Pierron pushed and overhauled a one second disadvantage to Minnaar to cross the line 0.5sec up. Then Hart crossed the line in second. Brosnan sent it in style off every drop and skipped over the technical sections like they weren’t there… and smashed the time, almost two seconds faster. It was all up to the last run: Bruni flicked and floated and kept it clean, and with it came the pace, the win and his fourth UCI World Championships title.
Gold for Loïc Bruni in the winning time of 4:05.544, silver for Troy Brosnan at +0.58 and the bronze for Pierron.