Historic downhill titles for Ireland and Switzerland in Leogang

The final day of the 2020 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz in Leogang, Austria, produced some of the most brutal downhill racing ever seen and brought us four new UCI World Champions. After Lauryne Chappaz (FRA) and Oisin O’Callaghan (IRL) claimed the Junior titles, the Elite downhill rainbow jerseys went to Camille Balanche (SUI) and Reece Wilson (GBR).

The Leogang course saw some development for 2020. The familiar top meadows section flows quickly but its re-worked steep central forest section – hitting 39% slopes – was a muddy challenge for riders in every class, and was to define their times and reward the new champions.

With fresh gentle snowfall at the start of the 2.3km Speedster track, the conditions were challenging for all riders. Germany’s Anastasia Thiele and Belgium’s Siel van der Velden (3rd and 2nd quickest in practise) both slipped and crashed, setting times over 9 minutes compared to their sub-6-min runs on Friday.

After home rider Sophie Gutohrle put together a solid ride to take the hot seat, a pre-race favourite Léona Pierrini (FRA) pushed hard but late errors cost her. And it was her 17-year-old compatriot Lauryne Chappaz – 8th at the 2019 UCI World Championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada – who could reproduce her qualifying form, going faster than the Austrian in every split time, for a dominant win. Lauryne matched her sister Melanie in winning the UCI Junior world title, and confirmed another French victory.

First out of the gate, home rider Gabriel Wibmer hit the Speedster with an urgency like he was late for school, posting a time for the 59 following starters to chase. It was GBR’s Dennis Luffman who eventually toppled Wibmer before Ireland’s Oisin O’Callaghan ripped a 4:02.142 run. It left him in the hot seat, leading a quartet of British riders, having set what looked like a tough target for the favourites.

The USA’s Matthew Sterling, fastest in qualifying, started on the pace but went backwards, finishing 43rd. It was a similar fate for O’Callaghan’s Irish compatriot Christopher Cumming, who struggled on the second sector, finishing 21st. And the 17-year-old from Limerick could barely watch as the last three starters – Goncalo Bandiera (POR), Seth Sherlock (CAN) and Luke Meier-Smith (AUS) came in 44th, 22nd and 29th.

The 2019 Irish Boys (aged 15-16) Champion Oisin O’Callaghan took Ireland’s first ever rainbow jersey for downhill ahead of Great Britain’s Daniel Slack, James Elliott, Luffman and Luke Mumford.

Despite the absence of the injured five-times UCI World Champion Rachel Atherton and fastest qualifying home favourite Valentina Höll, the field was talent-packed, with 2019 UCI World Cup overall winner Tracey Hannah (AUS), Tahnée Seagrave (GBR) and defending UCI World Champion Myriam Nicole (FRA) the favourites.

Amongst the 24 riders representing 14 nations, Great Britain’s Mikayla Parton took the early hot seat before Nicole lit up sectors green, pumping the track on flat pedals, going 20 seconds clear despite high-siding in the slippery forest.

Next rider, Seagrave – winner in Leogang in 2017, and back from a serious ankle injury – was marginally up on time… until she was over the bars with a crash that cost her a minute. Slovenian Champion Monika Hrastnik kept it consistent to slot into second.

Switzerland’s Camille Balanche was the first rider to go ‘clean’ through the trees – and it paid off as the 2019 European Champion went top with just two riders remaining.

A big spill on a hot run for Marine Cabirou meant this title wouldn’t go to France. Hannah, winner of the 2019 Leogang UCI World Cup round, ran last and fast, but her crashes meant she missed out on her sixth podium.

As the Swiss cross-country Olympic legend Nino Schurter finally loosened his grip, Balanche took their country’s first gold ever for women in downhill. “It was extreme. The main goal was just to make it to the bottom without crashing, and it paid off,” said Balanche. “I can’t believe it… It’s gonna take some time for me to realise.”

Early leader Johannes Fischbach (GER) was congratulated by Benoît Coulanges who settled into second – the position he recently put reigning UCI World Champion Loïc Bruni into in the French National Championships. At that same race, another of the big French prospects, Amaury Pierron had crashed suffering a fractured spine, forcing him to miss the 2020 Worlds, just as another favourite of the DH community, Brook Macdonald (NZL) returned to Leogang after his spinal injury in the 2019 UCI Worlds. ‘The Bulldog’ couldn’t trouble the leaderboard but shows he’s back to contend.

It was another antipodean, Jack Moir, who was first to break today’s 4-min barrier before Scotsman Reece Wilson put together an inspired run to chomp 7.6 seconds out of the Aussie’s time, while the course still awaited all the favourites.

The Frenchmen were coming… 2018 and 2019 Junior UCI World Cup overall winner Thibaut Daprela was fattest up to split 3 before meeting the same ‘magnetic’ tree that cost USA’s four-time Leogang UCI World Cup winner Aaron Gwin and collected Canada’s Finn Iles.

Rémi Thirion went ‘all in’ and his gamble almost paid off, putting him in 2nd. Canada’s Mark Wallace went smooth and strong for provisional third. Austria’s David Trummer pushed hard too, putting him in a podium position on his home track.

France’s Loris Vergier – fastest in qualifying – started quickly but faded. Britain’s Laurie Greenland started slowly, nursing a broken thumb, and never fully recovered. The most decorated rider in the competition, RSA’s Greg Minnaar, took a big tumble; double former UCI World Champion Danny Hart (GBR) suffered a similar fate; and 2019 runner-up Troy Brosnan (AUS) built – then lost – an advantage.

It was all down to the 26-year-old four-times UCI World Champion. And as it fell apart for Bruni in the mud, the 22-year-old Briton broke into tears, realising he had earned a stunning rainbow jersey. Trummer took a well deserved silver and Thirion the bronze.

“I just believed in myself. I needed a year off... I can’t believe it. I’ve worked really hard and here we are,” said an emotional Reece Wilson.