April 14, 2014 (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa) – Aaron Gwin (USA) Specialized returned to his winning form this weekend with an authoritative victory here in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Manon Carpenter (Gbr) Madison Saracen Factory Team took the win for the ladies under blistering African sunshine.
The sun and dry temperatures here had baked the track from race day, and large soft sections had been ground into the more trafficked lines, making holding speed and direction incredibly difficult on what was already a slippery surface. Changes for this season included the addition of several natural rock gardens, and re-routes towards the bottom for better flow. All in all, the changes received positive feedback from riders, managers and the media. “It’s turned into a real World Cup downhill track,” commented one retired World Cup racer.
Gwin struggled most of last season and couldn’t quite find his form, although there were flashes of brilliance all season long. He got things underway this year in quick fashion, beating out the competition by 2.037 seconds, a result that equates to a country mile in the sport of downhill. The American was followed by Australian Mick Hannah (Aus) Hutchinson UR, the early race favorite known for his incredible pedaling strength. Look for Hannah to also be favorite next week when the World Cup heads to his hometown of Cairns, Australia. Bringing up third was local hero Greg Minnaar (RSA) Santa Cruz Syndicate, who won World Championships here last season.
An elated Gwin spoke about his run “This felt good. [My teammate] Troy [Brosnan] and I were riding good all week. It was one of those weeks that we felt up to pace on the first day. We were cleaning little things up, doing run after run thinking, ‘Wow, I’d take that as my race run. Let’s just get it going!’ To put it together when it counts is difficult, especially for me it seems recently. It’s a new year and I’m pumped. The track changes were awesome. We were wondering how it would flow and work, but that’s why we’re bike riders and not track designers! It turned out really good, thumbs up to those guys.”
Canadian hopeful Steve Smith (Can) Devinci Global Racing was at home on Vancouver island with his foot in a cast and is still questionable for the next race in a week’s time in Australia.
For the women, it was Carpenter taking the win. Perennial favorite Rachel Atherton (Gbr) GT Factory Racing spent all week in hospital on an IV with a bacterial infection. She rode one practice run and the qualifier, yet still miraculously managed to take home a second place in finals. She was 3.9 seconds back. In third it was American Jill Kintner (USA) Norco making her first podium appearance in ages. The former Olympian was looking good all week and held it together for a great result.
Canada was represented by Micayla Gatto (Can) Pivot Factory DH Team and Casey Brown (Can) Bergamont Hayes World Team, both of whom suffered mechanicals in the finals. Gatto wound up 12th, while Casey ended up having to DNF after bending both her chainring and her handlebars.
Riders now pack their bags and head almost completely to the other side of the globe for the next event in Cairns, Australia in a week’s time. The last time this track saw action it was 1996 and 4″ of suspension was pushing it. Look for things to get interesting as a cyclone blew through on Saturday and may have turned the blue groove-like dirt into a quagmire.
Full results here.