Can the French stranglehold on downhill be overcome?

Aug 8, 2019, 11:26 AM

The Men’s Elite downhill (DHI) has been utterly dominated by French riders this year. It’s not a sudden phenomenon, but across 2018 and well into 2019 the sustained strong performances by a close-knit trio of fearless competitors has become impossible to ignore. Amaury Pierron, Loïc Bruni and Loris Vergier have consistently painted the stage blue, white and red, and made La Marseillaise a familiar celebration tune.

 

Since Pierron won the second round of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup in Fort William, and right up until he won at Les Gets in the fifth round of the 2019 series, only the young Belgian Martin Maes had been the fly in the ointment of Frenchmen on the top step: and what’s more he did it in their own back yard, La Bresse, the final round of 2018 and the only race of the season that didn’t feature a French rider in the top three. But by then Pierron had already claimed the 2018 overall UCI World Cup victory and Bruni went on to bag the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz, narrowly beating Maes and Britain’s Danny Hart (former double UCI World Champion), to take his third rainbow jersey in four years.

 

Pierron, Bruni and Vergier seem to have the world at their feet, and aged 23, 25 and 23 respectively, they also have time on their side. Despite being rivals they appear to enjoy a genuinely supportive camaraderie with friendships stretching back years to their early competitive days. In a recent Pinkbike profile, they each shared a little of that history:

 

“Loïc's dad and my dad used to compete together, so already by about 4 and 6 years old we were hanging out with each other,” said Loris Vergier. “From building mini motocross tracks together for our toys, digging little jumps and making the moto noises… we’ve always been together, growing up and racing.”

 

“When Loris won his first race it was just beautiful to see. I was not on pace that day so I was kind of a spectator,” said Loic Bruni. “It was beautiful and just like nothing could happen to him. When he crossed the line I was super happy.”

 

 

“I am really happy when I see Loris or Loic win. It’s a French win and I feel we are all connected together and we just have a good relationship. They are my friends and it’s a good battle you know?” said Amaury Pierron.

 

“When Amaury he got his first win before me, but I was like, ‘you deserve it dude’ in Fort William,” continued Vergier. “Then the next time was like ‘woah you’re fast now’ and then the third time like ‘f*k off I want to beat you now!’ We love each other I guess, it’s a friendship and we all want to go fast.”

 

The first five Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup races of 2019 were won by these French friends: three for Bruni and two for Pierron, with a collection of podiums for Vergier including second place at Vallnord Pal Arinsal where he was a whisker away from repeating his maiden win from the previous year at the Andorran track.

 

It looked like the French trio might string together a year’s worth of wins until last weekend in Val di Sole, Italy. Laurie Greenland’s choice of lines through the most technical sections kept his momentum and put him in the hot seat. With rain-affected qualification determining an unusual starting order for the final run, the young Briton was one of the last of the favourites to go – and no-one could get near him. His maiden World Cup victory, by a margin of almost 3 seconds over Bruni and Pierron, upset what looked like a nailed-on first 1-2-3 for France, reversing the order of the top three finishers at Les Gets.

 

 

The 22-year-old has been knocking on the door of an Elite Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup win with second and third places in 2018 but hadn’t troubled the podium in 2019 until Italy. The 2015 Junior UCI World Champion and UCI World Cup winner has earned a notoriety in the Elite ranks that’s gathering momentum with fans, fellow competitors and commentators alike.

“This is literally what I've been working for my whole life,” said Greenland after his win.

 

It was another British rider, the more experienced Hart, who had looked like upsetting the tricolour trio with a fast run that only fell apart in the final quarter due to a rear wheel puncture, yet the advantage he had gained in the earlier part of the descent meant the time was still good enough to earn him fifth. The 27-year-old Bristolian is a regular on the UCI World Cup podium although he hasn’t hit the top step since a run of three straight victories in 2016 (a sequence that started in Lenzerheide).

 

With five-time winner Aaron Gwin side-lined, other big hitters with the tools to unseat the Frenchmen include evergreen Greg Minnaar (RSA) – even with a fall in Val di Sole, the triple overall UCI World Cup winner still took seventh, matching his Les Gets run and his current overall position. Don’t count out Brook MacDonald (NZL) either, and keep an eye on Austrian Champion, David Trummer who is having a fine season.

 

And if we look at the overall standings, there’s another name interrupting the French clean sweep. Bruni leads with 1,132 points from Pierron on 1,000. Then it’s Australia’s Troy Brosnan on 939 points, clear from Vergier on 754 ahead of Hart with 723 points.

 

Brosnan may have had a disappointing (by his incredibly high standards!) run in Italy which saw him finish 10th, but it’s the consistency he delivers that places him so well. A five-time podium finisher in UCI World Championships and a double Junior UCI World Champion, the 26-year-old is a class act and seems to be perpetually on the edge of brilliance. 

 

There are two rounds left to fight: Lenzerheide, Switzerland (10 August), and Snowshoe, USA (7 September), and while it’s mathematically possible for a non-French overall winner, the odds are getting increasingly long.

 

“I just can’t tell you who will win the overall, man… I will tell you the last day of the season because it’s never going to be safe to say. We’ll see man!” teased Loïc Bruni.