The World Cup got off to a storming start yesterday in Pietermaritzburg, where hot conditions and one of the quickest tracks on the circuit made for an exciting season opener.
With last year’s World Champion Stevie Smith out injured for the first few races of the season following surgery on a broken foot, it was all to play for in the men’s event.
American Aaron Gwinn, Brit Gee Atherton and Frenchman Loic Bruni were all among the riders trying to steal an early march on the injured Canadian. And despite a dramatic tumble from Bruni in practise, he was looking strong.
But this being Pietermaritzburg, all eyes were on local boy Greg Minnaar, who’d won this leg in spectacular style last season. Could he do it again?
Local boy goes for broke
Minnaar was looking fast in practice, but not quite as fast as Gwinn. The 2011 and 2012 World Champion was a full two seconds faster than the next quickest down, his Syndicate team-mate Josh Bryceland, with Minnaar fractionally behind him.
In the event though, Minnaar stepped things up. Following a fast run from Mick Hannah, who’d also been looking good in practise, he belted down the track. The split times put him ahead of Hannah in the first and second sections of the track, and the crowd were roaring him on.
But in the end he couldn’t quite hold onto his speed all the way, finishing just 0.7 seconds behind Hannah.
In the end though, that nail-bitingly close gap didn’t matter, because Aaron Gwinn put in a champion’s performance when it mattered, claiming the win with a lead of two seconds.
Illness holds Rachel Atherton back
Like her brother Gee, who could only manage a 10th place finish, the UK’s Rachel Atherton had a slightly frustrating weekend in the women’s event.
As she explains in this qualifying highlights video, she’d picked up some kind of bug on the plane to South Africa, and so missed most of practise with what she described as “a proper fever”.
Her rivals meanwhile – including Emmeline Ragot and Manon Carpenter - were looking fast. But Rachel is not a two-time world champion for nothing. And when push came to shove, she put in a seriously impressive run to earn herself a second place finish.
Nothing could hold back her compatriot Manon Carpenter though. After posting an insanely fast qualifying time (she went a full 9 seconds faster than anyone else!) Manon then repeated the feat in the main event.
She shaved a further four seconds off her time to claim the win in emphatic style, a full three seconds ahead of Rachel. Jill Kintner rounded off the podium.