The 2021 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup continues in Maribor (Slovenia) on 14-15 August with the third downhill (DHI) round following Leogang (Austria) in June and Les Gets (France) at the beginning of this month. It’s the season’s midway point for the downhill specialists, with two remaining rounds set to follow at Lenzerheide (Switzerland) and Snowshoe (USA).
After a ten-year absence, DHI UCI World Cup racing returned to Maribor in 2019 on an updated black line track with new gap-jumps. It was used for the first of two back-to-back rounds of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup, with a variant – different routes in the middle sections – introduced to present a fresh test for the second race.
Each around 2.1km long, the action starts fast in the open, then after the first kicker, heads into the rocky, rooty forest sections. It’s fast yet technical with gaps to judge and choices to make. A short open sprint section gives riders no let-up before returning into the woods for what Gee Atherton describes as a “pinball section, bouncing side to side” ahead of the rock garden and a final big jump before the finish.
The wet and mud in the 2020 UCI World Cup in Maribor added to the excitement. As Slovenian Champion Monika Hrastnik said, “Roots and rocky sections are very slippery in wet weather and this makes the course even more interesting and demanding.”
Gauging the conditions on track walks and in practice and qualifying is important, and tyre and bike setup choices can be just as vital as the line choices themselves, counting towards split-second differences between podium places.
The opening downhill round of the 2019 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup saw Elite victories for Loïc Bruni (FRA) and Tahnée Seagrave (GBR), with Junior wins for Thibaut Dapréla (FRA) and Valentina Höll (AUT).
Then the two UCI World Cup races in 2020 were dominated by French riders. In the first finals it was a 1-2 for Marine Cabirou and Myriam Nicole (with Australia’s Tracey Hannah third), followed by a 1-2-3 for the Elite men: Loris Vergier, Rémi Thirion and Dapréla, stepping up to the Elites.
Days later the second races saw Cabirou claim second behind Germany’s Nina Hoffmann and ahead of Italy’s Eleonora Farina, while Vergier repeated his victory with Bruni in second, and Great Britain’s Matt Walker third.
Both Junior races saw wins for French Champion Léona Pierrini and Oisin O’Callaghan (IRE) on his way to becoming Junior UCI World Champion.
While this dominant display may send French riders back to Slovenia in expectation, the first two rounds this year haven’t read from the same script.
UCI World Champion Camille Balanche (SUI) won the first race at Leogang (AUT) from home rider Valentina Höll. The Swiss backed this up with a fine third place in Les Gets a few weeks back.
Slovenia’s Hrastnik took third and fifth places respectively – and would love a home podium. Having swapped fifth in Austria for first place in France, Seagrave has a repeat of her 2019 Slovenian success in her sights. So far in 2021 the French women have scored a fourth place for Cabirou and a close second for national champion Nicole (a third consecutive UCI World Cup silver after both 2020 races at Lousã, Portugal) while Höll took another tumble in sight of the finish line.
After victory in 2020’s second race at Maribor and a 2nd place at Lousã, Nina Hoffmann’s 2021 has not gone to plan: a crash before the Leogang final left her with possible concussion, and another crash at Les Gets resulted in a broken collarbone.
Leogang saw a win for Troy Brosnan (AUS), followed by French riders Dapréla (2nd), Amaury Pierron returning from a serious back injury (3rd) and National Champion Benoit Coulanges (5th).
At Les Gets Dapréla found winning form on – very slippery – home soil despite a nasty injury just a week earlier where he almost bit through his tongue, to record his first UCI World Cup Elite win, much anticipated since his brilliant record in the Juniors.
It was a first ever second place for Max Hartenstern, the reigning German and 2016 Junior European Champion, who just can’t wait for the next races:
Matching Amaury in Austria, third place in France went to 2019 European Champion Baptiste Pierron, the eldest of the three racing brothers, a moment of celebration for his first UCI World Cup podium.
But only a week later, Baptiste suffered a crash, fracturing four vertebrae, and was fortunate not to damage his spinal cord. He’s already looking on the positive side, as he reported on social media:
“Goals for the moment, rest, stay still, eat well and above all keep a smile! The countdown has started, I can already feel my vertebrae coming together again.”
In the Juniors there were first UCI World Cup wins for the USA’s Jackson Goldstone and Britain’s Phoebe Gale, representing exciting prospects to come.
Whichever of these talents comes to the fore in Maribor, we’re assured of entertaining racing from Slovenia.