Pietermaritzburg – Former downhill mountain biking World Champion Aaron Gwin got his 2014 UCI MTB World Cup, presented by Shimano, season underway in perfect fashion when he claimed a thrilling victory in the elite men’s downhill final of the Pietermaritzburg leg at Cascades MTB Park on Saturday.
Last down the hill after a solid qualifying round on Friday, the Specialized Racing DH star charged to the top of the leaderboard early on in his run and never looked back as he surged ahead of title hopeful Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR) and hometown hero Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate).
“I’m just happy, really stoked. It is definitely a team win! Everyone at Specialized has been working so hard for us, trying to get us the best equipment, best support, best staff and best everything and they have been really killing it for us,” said Gwin.
“The race was great this year! The track was good, the fans – as always – down here are great! I love racing here!
“We felt good all weekend. From the first practice run I was happy, I like the changes they made to the course and the bike was working, I was working, everything felt good.
“I knew from the first day that I had a win in me if I could put down my best run but that is a lot easier said than done. Qualifying went well and we just tried to keep the ball rolling.
“I am happy for Mick (Hannah), happy for Troy (Brosnan) and it was an amazing ride for Greg (Minnaar) to get back after his knee and still get on the podium,” he added.
Hannah, having suffered a mechanical in qualifying and so started some way down the list in the finals, demolished the previous best time of the day set by South Africa’s Andrew Neethling’s (Giant Factory Off-road Team) by more than eight seconds to power into the ‘Hot Seat’.
With just Minnaar, Josh Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) and Gwin left to start their runs, Hannah’s nerves were clear for all to see as he looked to go one better than the result he achieved at the same course at the 2013 World Champs.
A charging Minnaar however appeared to have the better of his Australian rival in the first two sectors. A slow final sector by the defending World Champ and a top section mishap by Bryceland saw Hannah maintain his position he’d already for for a remarkable 18 riders.
That was until Gwin decided to get in on the act though as the American hero strung together the perfect final run to become the only person to break the four minute mark and, in the process, edge Hannah and Minnaar into second and third respectively.
Minnaar, having won both the 2012 World Cup and 2013 World Champs in his own back yard, put in a dream performance given he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the final leg of the 2013 World Cup in Austria late last year and was satisfied with the outcome.
“I was really nervous up top, I wasn’t super comfortable riding all the technical stuff. I haven’t had a lot of time on my bike since my surgery so I just tried to suss things out beforehand and then just relax as much as I could before my run,” said Minnaar.
“I had a really good run up top and I survived but, given the condition I’m in and a lack of time on the bike, I’m still really happy with my third place!
“The top section hadn’t blown up that much but I just couldn’t get that stretch right all week. It was really tricky, the rocks are placed really awkwardly and we were hitting our back wheel a lot so I was just super nervous and had a bit of a lack of confidence. I hit it really well in my final though so I was stoked!
“I really had a good final run and I lay it all out on the track. I’m just really thankful for all the people coming out and supporting me again, it’s incredible to see all the support,” he added.
Lapierre Gravity Republic’s charging young star Loic Bruni crossed the line in fourth with and Gwin’s Specialized Racing DH’s team mate Troy Brosnan fifth with the likes of Gee Atherton, Nick Beer and Josh Bryceland all suffering mishaps or crashes which hampered their performances.
The junior men’s downhill final took place a little earlier in the day and saw SRAM/TLD Racing’s Luca Shaw charge to his first World Cup victory of the 2014 season as he edged out Lapierre Gravity Republic’s Loris Vergier and the Frenchman’s fellow countryman Amaury Pierron.
With riders starting in reverse order, second down the hill Pierron claimed the hot seat early on and with just Vergier and Shaw left to charge would have been excused for starting to believe his fairytale may just become reality.
It wasn’t to be though as Vergier cruised passed him before Shaw, Friday’s fastest qualifier, went one better yet to get his season off to the perfect start.
“I worked really hard this winter, this was always my goal and for it to finally happen is just such a relief and I’m just so happy,” said an exhausted Shaw afterwards.
“I wanted to do a good run yesterday because this track’s a little tricky to race, it’s got some slippery corners. Qualifying first kind of took the pressure off me a little today but I was still nervous this morning for sure!
“I just tried to do what I did in qualifying again today though and clean up the couple of mistakes I made yesterday and it worked out so I’m just so happy.
“Last year was my first year as a junior and I learned a lot. I feel great this season and a lot smarter this season than I was last so I just can’t wait for the rest of the World Cups,” added the SRAM/TLD Racing rider.
The UCI MTB World Cup, presented by Shimano, takes place at the Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg from 11-13 April 2014. More information can be found at www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – 2014 UCI MTB WORLD CUP PIETERMARITZBURG, PRESENTED BY SHIMANO
1. Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing DH) 3:59.344
2. Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR) 4:01.381
3. Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) 4:02.168
4. Loic Bruni (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:02.237
5. Troy Brosnan (Specialized Racing DH) 4:02.675
6. Samuel Blenkinsop (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:03.387
7. Sam Dale (Madison Saracen Factory Team) 4:05.347
8. Neko Mulally (Trek World Racing) 4:05.705
9. Samuel Hill (Chain Reaction Cycles.com/Nukeproof) 4:06.195
10. Gee Atherton (GT Factory Racing) 4:06.243
1.Luca Shaw (SRAM/TLD Racing) 4:15.267
2.Loris Vergier (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:17.257
3.Amaury Pierron 4:23.668
4.Aiden Varley 4:27.376
5.Benjamin Boutie (LAC Blanc/SCOTT) 4:29.731
Source: Gameplan Media