There is now just over a week to go until the opening race of the 2012 UCI Downhill World Cup, so lets take a look back at some of the action from last year’s series.

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Similarly to this year the series kicked off in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The course had been treated to a slight face lift since it’s debut on the World Cup circuit, with the start gate pushed back a minute and a half up the hill, but the long energy sapping motorway section half way down the track still proved largely unpopular with most riders.

In his qualifying run Brendan Fairclough dabbed his foot whilst coming through the rock garden and injured his knee, leaving him unable to compete in Sunday’s race. It was only upon returning to the UK Brendan was able to get his knee properly examined and the full extent of the damage became clear, resulting in Brendan having his ACL removed just 12 days before the race in Fort William. This injury continued to plague Brendan throughout his 2011 season.

Back in South Africa and in his first World Cup race since since breaking his femur in May 2010, Fabien Barel proved he’d made a full recovery by storming into fourth place, making a welcome return to the podium, alongside Steve Peat in fifth, who had also made a long awaited return to form. But it was Aaron Gwin, who with a new team, a new bike and a new coach who took top spot on the day, onboard a Session 88 fitted with a semi slick rear tyre and a dropper seatpost.

Bike setup aside Gwin’s victory in Pietermaritzburg showed that his intense off season training had paid off, and that he had the bike handling skills to go with it. Whilst the 2010 season might have been all about Gee Atherton and Greg Minnaar, 2011 firmly belonged to Gwin. In only his third full season Gwin went on to become the first rider in history, to win five rounds of the World Cup in one season, and took the overall victory with a 465 point lead.

Interestingly while Gwin may have been stealing the limelight, the battle between Gee and Greg rolled over into the ’11 season, only this time the two were left to fight for second place. Minnaar might have beaten Gee on his him soil in Pietermaritzburg, but would he be able to do it again in Round Two at Fort William when the tables were turned and it was Gee with the home advantage.

Fort William 2011 will forever be remembered for producing some of the most exciting race action in the history of the sport. Gwin had qualified in first place but right behind him were last year’s winner Gee Atherton, Danny Hart and Greg Minnaar.

Mick Hannah had a disastrous start to the season, qualifying first in Pitermaritzburg, but crashing out in his race run with such force that he sheered the bolts on his stem. After a disappointing qualifying run here in Fort Bill Mick was keen to make amends and promptly did so, getting himself onto the hot seat.

Few riders came close to Hannah’s time but no-one seemed able to match the power Hannah put down in the final part of the track. Josh Button managed to knock Hannah off the top spot, closely followed by Scott 11 rider Fabien Pedemanaud, then Brook McDonald reminded everyone of his former Juniour World Champion smashing Pedemanaud’s time by over seven seconds, really putting the pressure on everyone at the top of the mountain. MacDonald’s time was untouchable and it wasn’t until Minnaar crossed the line that he was knocked off, but with only three riders left MacDonald was guaranteed his first ever place on the Elite men’s podium.

Fabien Barel is always a rider to watch out for but a slip up at the top of the track left him with a broken wheel and unable to finish. Similarly Steve Smith made a small mistake but he somehow managed to keep things under control and still finished in tenth place. A second place here for Cameron Cole last year catapulted him into the limelight. This year he was just half a second off a spot on the podium and had to settle for sixth place. Right behind him were fellow kiwi’s Sam Blenkinsop and Justin Leov, meaning in total there were four riders from New Zealand in the top ten.

With the crowds just settling from Minnaar’s run, Danny Hart set off and started getting seriously wild on the top section of the track. His first and second split times put him above Greg but he lost speed in the final section and crossed the line greeted by the loudest roar from the crowd just over a second behind Greg’s time. This would be Hart’s first podium as an elite rider, as well as Giant’s first podium in ten years, and Danny couldn’t be happier.

Next rider down Gee Atherton was under so much pressure after winning here last year, but as he crossed the finish line it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. In fact Gee’s rear wheel was smashed to pieces yet he was still able to ride to the bottom of the course and finish in fourth place. Not the result he’d been hoping for, but one he should be proud of considering the circumstances.

All eyes were on Aaron Gwin as he set off from the starters gate. After winning the first round of the World Cup as well as the US open many people were expecting Gwin to walk away with first place again today. Gwin’s time at the second split put him in front of Greg by five seconds, but a small crash cost him dearly and he ended up finishing in fifth. Greg had now been victorious at Fort Bill more times than any other rider, with four first place finishes. 

Greg Minnaar victorious in Fort William yet again

Just seven days later the world’s best gathered in Leogang, Austria on a track that is slowly gaining the affection of those who compete on it. Brook Macdonold was looking for a repeat of last week’s success at Fort William and once again found himself on the hot seat watching the rest of the field coming down trying to better his time. Sadly Brook’s hadn’t done enough this week but he still finished in an impressive tenth place.

It was Sam Hill who knocked him off the top spot and went on to finish fifth, giving the Monster Energy Specialized rider his World Cup podium since 2009. Team mate and fellow Australian Troy Brosnan finished 15th after a small crash on a corner that caught out many other riders. Brendan Fairclough, still coming to terms with his injured knee came in a disappointing 31st on a track that many thought would suit his riding style.

Danny Hart really excels on these steep tracks and was surely hoping for another spot on the podium. He was the fastest rider down in Friday’s timed practice so knew he was capable of something special. Hart looked much more in control of his bike this week and almost seemed to float over the roots strewn across the course. Hart came so close to Hill’s time and ended up finishing in sixth place.

Blenkinsop is another rider who laps up the steeper technical courses. Blinky finished fourth here last year after qualifying first but just couldn’t find it this year and ended up in ninth place.

Last year’s winner and next man down Greg Minnaar was up on Hill’s time at the first split and took the lead by three and a half seconds. Justin Leov couldn’t catch Minnaar’s time, then Andrew Neethling and Fabien Barel crashed in their race runs, guaranteeing Minnaar a spot on the podium.

Steve Smith’s first split time placed him in 21st but he went on to put down a solid run and earnt himself a place on the podium finishing in fourth. Gee Atherton was absolutely flying down and looked faster than anyone. Atherton proved exactly why he’s the defending World Cup champion and finished three and a half seconds up on Minnaar’s time.

All eyes were now on Aaron Gwin who had once again finished first. Even with a crash at Fort William Gwin finished fifth. How would he cope today, would the pressure of being last rider down get to him again? Well, the short answer is no! Gwin looked to be in a league of his own and was up at the first split by five seconds. A slip on the pedals cost him time but he still won with a two second lead!

Stay tuned for part two where we’ll be looking at all the action from Mont Sainte Anne, La Bresse and Val di Sole.

Wed 7th Mar, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

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