Downhill mountain biking is a fast, highly technical and dangerous sport. Everyone wants to see a rider get down the hill safely. But all too often the outcome of races, championships and even careers have been decided by spectacular crashes.
Most of the entries on this list belong to one man, Mr. Sam Hill, and occurred in 2007 or 2008 when he was near-impossible to beat. He was proof of the maxim that downhill racers are often their own worst enemies, ultimately causing his own undoing several times.
The remainder in the list are however, no less significant. All of them meant a change in the final result, which in turn changed the course of mountain bike history.
And they’re all pretty damn gnarly! I remember feeling physically sick watching Steve Peat crash out in 2004…
1) Sam Hill gets wet, wild and very nearly wins in Switzerland, 2007
In 2007, the downhill mountain bike world was given an incredible lesson how to handle a bicycle in horrific conditions by Australian Sam Hill. Back then, the average gradient of the Champery course in Switzerland was 1:2.5 [basically, it was bloody steep! - ed].
In the dry, Sam Hill won qualifying by a massive 14 seconds, making the rest of the field look decidely average in the process. But come finals on Sunday, the rain had moved in, and some rain it was. The steep face became almost unrideable as it got wetter and wetter.
“Come finals on Sunday, the rain had moved in, and some rain it was.
Finnish racer Matti Lehikoinen had pulled a sly one by deliberately qualifying low to get his run in before the rain. Sam Hill, who’d qualified in first, would have to drop last and prove that the track was just as easily attacked in the wet as in the dry.
He very nearly did it – he was up on his nearest rivals at both of the timing “splits”. No one could quite believe what was happening as he ripped into the last third of the course.
Then, on a turn in the meadow just above the final woods section, Hill hit the deck.
He jumped right back on it and set off charging hard once more, but couldn’t make up the time he’d lost. Incredibly though, he was less than 2 seconds behind Lehikoinen!
Matti may well have one the race, but Sam Hill had won the hearts of the watching audience and went on to take the overall World Cup title that year.
2) Sam Hill slams in the dry at the World Championships, Italy 2008
Crash and burn number two for Sam Hill, this time on the very dry slopes of Val di Sol in Italy. Skip to 7 minutes to see it.
Another steep, technical track that suited Sam Hill’s flamboyant natural, attacking style.
On finals day, Sam Hill would be the second last man to tackle the steep, rocky course and all eyes were on him to bump Brit Steve Peat, who’d climbed into first place with a spectacular run, out of the hotseat.
“It was another incredible lesson in technical riding.”
Clearly on a charge, Hill was already some five seconds up by the first split and was on course to extending that lead by the time he reached the finish line. It was another incredible lesson in technical riding.
Coming out of the woods and off the last big fly-off jump, Hill got his bike broadside around the penultimate turn for what seemed like forever. He was well known for being able to drift a bike like no other, but that day it was not to be.
As the ground dropped away slightly at after the apex, Hill’s luck ran out. After posting a second split some 6 seconds faster than Peat, Hill crossed the line 3.1 seconds adrift.
In the end it wasn’t to be Steve Peat’s championship either as Gee Atherton put down a run that beat them both, but the crowd were left to imagine what might have been.
3) Francois Gachet suffers a sickening, career-ending crunch, Switzerland, 1997
Back in the early 90s, Francois Gachet was the boy. Already a World Champion, he won four of the six UCI races in 1994 and was a World Championship silver medallist by 1995.
Signed for the then-unbeatable Sunn-Nike team, it seemed the sky was the limit for the Frenchman. But his career was cruelly cut short at the World Championships in 1997 however.
“The images do not make for pleasant viewing.”
The crash initially looked fairly innocuous, but it was obvious Gachet was in serious pain. Take a closer look and the images do not make for pleasant viewing.
A severe break to both the bones in his lower leg, combined with what looks like a dislocated knee – not a pretty sight.
His foot sits 45 degrees to where it should normally be, his lycra leggings giving the leg some support as he cradles his leg with both hands.
4) Steve Peat can’t quite seal the deal at the World Championships, France, 2004
I think it’s fair to say that the World Championships has been a source of great agony for Steve Peat.
Four times since 2000 he has finished second! 2009 would see Peaty eventually banish his demons, but by then, he should really have been wearing the Rainbow Stripes for 5 years.
The contest at Les Gets in 2004 should really have been the year the Yorkshireman was crowned World Champion. Up to that point in the season, Peaty was looking good for his second World Cup Series Overall win and he went in to the competition as firm favourite for the win.
Qualifying went well for Peaty, as he put a buffer of two seconds between himself and fellow Brit Gee Atherton on what was a relatively short course.
Finals was much the same. At split one, Peaty was a second up and flying.
Disaster struck within sight of the finish line though. On the penultimate corner, Steve Peat’s bike hit some roots and started sliding.
“The World Championships has been a source of great agony for Steve Peat.”
Peat hit the deck hard and had to scramble back onto his bike. Incredibly he managed to pull some of it back, getting to the second split six seconds down and finishing with only a four and a half second deficit. But it wasn’t quite enough.
It would be five years before he was finally crowned World Champion.
5) Shaun Palmer drags his bike across the finish line at the World Championships in Sweden, 1999
Shaun Palmer, an ex pro snowboarder dubbed “the badboy of downhill” was the antithesis of the calculated professionalism of the French athletes that ruled downhill in the 90s.
But his talent was undeniable, and at a muddy and rain-soaked World Championships in 1999, Shaun Palmer had a strong shot at taking the gold.
The technical course played into his hands, and he was a second up on Cedric Gracia at split number one and looking good to extend his lead from thereon in.
“The ‘badboy of downhill’ was the antithesis of the calculated professionalism of the French athletes that ruled downhill in the 90s”
But he was taken down by the final corner, a flat, soaking wet tarmac turn which sent riders hard left just before the finish.
The Grundig cameras lost sight of Palmer as he passes around the turn behind the finish arch, but the American appeared again without his bike, sliding along the black top.
In a last ditch attempt he threw his bike and himself over the line, but it wasn’t to be. Palmer finished 4th, 2.4 seconds off the lead.
He sat dejected, against the barriers, wondering what could have been.