Words by Saskia Dugon
All Photos by Saskia Dugon Photography
For the 3rd year, the Downhill World Cup season has kicked off in the southern French region of Lourdes. Situated just a couple of hours away from the Pyrenees and Andorra, the Pic du Jer lift is situated on the outskirts of this religious town.
With a start time later in the year than in previous years, we had hoped that the weather would be kinder than last year's washout, making the track almost perilous for the riders. However, after a drastic drop in the temperature and lack of dry weather conditions in the days leading up to the World Cup, there was already worry about the likelihood of rain attempting to dampen spirits on race day. But nonetheless, riders got underway in practice and loved the opportunity to kick up some dust clouds before the storm clouds descended.
Thursday and Friday saw the team pits being fairly secretive over what new tech they may have, although, this did not stop loyal fans attempting to nosey their way in to see their heroes come to town. There was a lot of talk over the arrival of the 29'er downhill bike as possibly becoming the new commonplace wheel size, however it appeared that only Santa Cruz decided to go for the extra 1.5", of which was less about introducing a new wheel size standard to the world cup scene, but rather to make a bike that would comfortably fit both Greg Minaar and Loris Vergier.
One of the most anticipated bikes for this season was Manon Carpenter's new Radon Swoop. Kitted out with full Shimano Saint, Fox Kashima 40's and DH2 shock, along with a CarboCage to keep everything aligned and light, the new Swoop 200 is certainly a bike of beauty.
With a change in UCI rules last year, only 15 elite women would make it to the finals on Sunday, and with 10 protected riders, there were only 5 spaces to play for.
Qualifying results left the three British girls at the top, with Tahnée Seagrave qualifying first, Rachel Atherton 2nd and Manon Carpenter in 3rd.
This wouldn't be the first time that Tahnée has qualified first and has had chase down the Queen of Downhill; Rachel Atherton. The question on everybody's lips was; would she be the one to put an end to Rachels reign?
Sunday arrived and the day of finals was finally upon them. The elite women headed up first thing in the morning to get some last minute practice time in. The sun was kind and stayed out to play for a little longer whilst the juniors, and elite women headed down the mountain.
After tackling the dusty track, it was to be seen that Rachel would be keeping her metaphorical crown as downhill queen as she beat 2nd place rider, Tracey Hannah, by 2.5 seconds, with Tahnee Seagrave following closely behind. However, the gap between Rachel and the runners-up was a lot closer today than it had been in previous races, only time will tell if the off-season training brought the field closer together.
Myriam Nicole and Manon Carpenter made up 4th and 5th respectively, and new Specialized Gravity rider Miranda Miller narrowly followed.
Men's Elite Race
In the men's elite race, the qualifying results set the scene for a French battle on home soil between Loris Vergier and Loic Bruni as they took 1st and 2nd respectively, with Luca Shaw, Danny Hart and Aaron Gwin taking up the rest of the top 5 by adding some fire to the upcoming finals.
The men's elite finals started off with the same blue skies that the morning had seen, however, by the time the top 25 riders were set to go, the clouds had drawn closer and grown darker as the wind picked up.
As the weather began to creep in, Alexandre Fayolle put down a scorcher of a run, of which the likes of Mark Wallace and Marcelo Gutierrez were unable to beat, earning Alex his first Elite World Cup win, 4 years on from his Junior win in the Coupe de France VTT series at Lourdes.
Despite the harsh weather conditions, the atmosphere of the world cup did not dwindle, with the spectators being just as committed to the event as the racers were.
The second round of the UCI World Cup will take place in Fort Bill, Scotland on the weekend of June 3rd and 4th.
Wish you were at Lourdes watching the UCI World Cup? Well, Saskia's gallery below will have you believing you were there. Scroll through and check it out...