In the downhill start hut at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Apr 18, 2019, 10:15 AM

Downhill is the biggest fastest and gnarliest of all cycling disciplines: the pure sport of against-the-clock runs down purpose-designed natural courses. It sits alongside four-cross (4X) in the gravity category, has a close cousin in Enduro and shares venues with cross-country Olympic (XC) for around half of the year’s fixtures. But downhill (DH) is the daddy when it comes to thrills and spills...

Many of the top racers also compete in the single-event UCI World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz (at Monte-St-Anne, Canada, this year), but the UCI World Cup tests the consistency of the best riders over eight rounds between April and September. At each weekend fixture, qualifying runs dictate the running order for the final, where riders chase podiums for the individual round as well as points for the season’s tally.

To succeed over a season, riders must remain injury-free and keep the bike upright: the record books are littered with early-season podium finishers who crash out and fail to claim the UCI World Cup crown. It comes down to a fine balance between shredding heroics and conservative calculation.

The full-suspension race bikes, personalised for each rider, are continually being developed. Tyre grip and traction are important, as is the bike set-up, meaning relations between riders and mechanics are vital. The move in trend from 27.5- to 29-inch wheels was an interesting feature in 2018. Mixing wheel sizes is also allowed now, providing riders with even more options. Weather can also be a player in the drama.

Men’s and Women’s Elite races are complemented by Junior competitions, with riders in this category often feeding into Elite teams: for example,  2018 Junior winner of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, Thibaut Daprela (FRA), signed to Commencal Vallnord Team, while British rider Kade Edwards, Junior UCI World Champion in 2018, has stepped up to Elite ranks with Trek.


The courses

2019’s eight (up from seven last year) rounds include beloved regulars, a brand-new World Cup venue, and the return of two old favourites.

The first round is in Maribor, Slovenia, for the first time since 2010. At 2.6km long with an elevation drop of 450m, expect new jumps near the top and fresh sections near the bottom. Next up, the ever-present Fort William, Scotland: the longest course at 2.8km with 555m descent. Look out for some new natural sections – and the fickle Scottish weather. A week later it’s Leogang, Austria: steep and fast with jumps, but also technical, with rock-drops, roots and off-camber corners.

Into July the Vallnord course is 2.5km long with a mighty 616m drop, averaging 25%, including a 75% section. It’s fast, usually dry, and technically challenging. A week later the DH circuit revisits Les Gets in the French Alps. This historic favourite hasn’t featured in the UCI World Cup since 2002, although La Bresse hosted last season’s closing fixture.

Italy’s Val di Sole track begins with a fast flow banked section and features a big road gap, several jumps and a super-quick finale. Lenzerheide, Switzerland is the last European venue. It’s shorter at 2.2km and fast - with 65kph speeds expected – and includes a crazy rock garden on a 44% drop.

The final round is in Snowshoe, United States. This West Virginia resort, one of the highest on the East Coast, has hosted the USA Cycling National Championships with some great racing. Could the trademark stormy weather be a factor at the decisive fixture?


Women to watch

The top two women in 2018 were British, but could the order be reversed this year? UCI World Cup top spot went to Rachel Atherton, who claimed her sixth title. She starts 2019 with a new team – Atherton Racing – alongside her brothers Gee and Dan, and an all-new bike. Could the baton pass to Tahnée Seagrave (Transition Bikes / Muc-Off Factory Racing) who came a close second in 2018 with four race wins? Tahnée was also runner-up in 2017 behind Myriam Nicole and second in the 2018 World Champs… she will definitely want to claim the top step of the podium.


Don’t rule out Australia’s Tracey Hannah (Polygon UR) multiple UCI World Championships medallist and UCI World Cup podium finisher, or Myriam Nicole (Commencal Vallnord Team) who took fourth overall last year thanks to regular podium finishes.

Then there’s Slovenian Champion Monika Hrastnik, last year’s breakout star in fifth overall, who joins Dorval AM alongside eighth-placed Mariana Salazar (El Salvador). Also on the move is promising French rider Marine Cabirou – sixth in 2018 – who switches to the Scott Factory team.


Contenders for the Men’s competition

Let’s start with last year’s runaway winner, Commencal/ Vallnord’s Amaury Pierron who won three consecutive rounds( 2,3, and 4), in untouchable form. His fellow Frenchman, triple UCI World Champion Loic Bruni – still just 24 – won in Canada after a relatively disappointing 2018 season compromised by an early injury.

Continuing the French theme, watch out for Loris Vergier (a lifelong friend of Bruni): fourth overall last year – including victory at Vallnord. Along with American Luca Shaw he’s one of Santa Cruz Syndicate’s two young bucks, learning from legendary team-mate Greg Minnaar – triple UCI World Cup winner, and the most decorated rider in the history of the sport who, at 38, isn’t to be written off.  

Or could 2019 be Danny Hart’s year? The 2011 and 2016 UCI World Champion finished second in last year’s UCI World Cup, in his first year with Madison Saracen Factory Race Team, despite no race wins. Then there’s Canyon Factory Racing’s Australian Troy Brosnan, who took third overall last year.

Aaron Gwin, the American five-time World Cup winner and winner of 2018’s opening round makes the move from the YT Mob to Intense – as rider and team owner, taking countryman Neko Mulally with him.

Watch the race teaser :


2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Cup

27-28 April – Maribor, Slovenia

1-2 June – Fort William, Scotland

8-9 June – Leogang, Austria

6-7 July – Vallnord, Andorra

13-14 July – Les Gets, France

3-4 August – Val di Sole, Italy

10-11 August – Lenzerheide, Switzerland

7-8 September – Snowshoe, United States