In modern downhill mountain biking, times at the top of the leaderboard have become very tight indeed.
Shaun Palmer famously called it a day after being beaten at the 1996 World Championships by 0.15 of a second by a Frenchman eight years his junior – Nicolas Vouilloz.
Fast forward 18 years to the 2014 World Championships in Hafjell, and times were just as tight. Manon Carpenter took the Elite Women’s title by 0.088 from defending World Champion Rachel Atherton, while Rachel's older brother Gee won by a mere 0.407 seconds.
"Any winning margin over three seconds these days is worthy of note, especially if all of the main contenders race under the same conditions"
Any winning margin over three seconds these days is worthy of note, especially if all of the main contenders race under the same conditions (no rain halfway through finals) and have clean runs (no crashes or mechanicals). As downhill mountain biking has evolved over the last fifteen years, we’ve seen some stellar runs from the greats of our sport that left the competition staring blankly.
Below are some special runs from some special riders that produced stunned silence from the field and pandemonium in the crowd…
Steve Peat, Les Deux Alpes, 2004 - 5.77 seconds
2004 was Steve Peat's second World Cup Series winning year, so it's no surprise he put a massive gap between himself and the rest of the field on a course that suited him down to the ground.
Les Deux Alpes was the venue for the second round of the UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup. The course was fast and open with few real technical sections, so a fast time would rely on being able to maintain good momentum from top to bottom.
A fast time would rely on being able to maintain good momentum... Steve Peat is the king of momentum
Apart from a drop off into a complex of corners and a long, straight rock garden, the course was a fast, smooth Alpine pasture. Steve Peat is not a small chap, well over six foot in fact – and he’s the king of momentum.
A split-screen in one of Alex Rankin’s 'Earthed' series between Peaty and fourth place finisher Sam Hill shows the Yorkshireman powering ahead along a fast traverse low down on the course.
Frenchman Fabian Barel had won qualifying by a second over Peaty, but fell foul in finals, posting a time of well over six minutes. Peaty smashed Barel's qualifying time of 3:12, and his own qualifying time of 3:13, coming in with a 3:08.52. Second place Cedric Gracia could only get within 5.77 seconds of the flying Steve Peat that day.
Cedric Gracia, Leysin, 2000 - 9.13 seconds
Cedric Gracia is arguably the greatest mountain biker of our time, able to podium at pretty much any event that involves a mountain bike with a cool, effortless style.
His pro career started way back in the late 90s and is still going strong. Back in 2000, at a very wet and misty Leysin, Cedric Gracia took his biggest World Cup win to date, and beat the unstoppable Nicolas Vouilloz in the process.
"Gracia was flying early on, a good five seconds up on Vouilloz at the intermediate split - and he knew it"
Last man down, having won qualifying, Vouilloz had just pipped fellow Frenchman Mickael Pascal to the hotseat as Gracia set off in the Swiss gloom. As the video above shows (from 7:00 onwards), Gracia was flying early on, a good five seconds up on Vouilloz at the intermediate split - and he knew it.
Showboating off the final jump, he looked to the crowd before continuing on his gallop to the finish line. Despite gracing the same horrendous conditions as everyone else, Gracia crossed the line a full nine seconds up on Vouilloz.
Chris Kovarik, Fort William, 2002 - 14.02 seconds
Chris 'Karver' Kovarik is well known for his balls out riding style that, when the going is good, leads to great race results.
Back in 2002, everything went perfectly for the Antipodean bruiser aboard his signature red Intense M1. At the inaugural World Cup, and the opening round that year, at Nevis Range, Fort William, in similar conditions to Gracia's win above, Kovarik put down a winning margin that has yet to be beaten.
"At the first split, Kovarik was two seconds up. By the time he'd crossed the finish line, he had put 14.02 seconds between himself and the second placed rider"
Steve Peat won qualifying with a time of 4:43.07, with Kovarik back in third on 4:46.28. Come finals, however, the weather would move in and riders had more than just one of the longest, toughest tracks on the circuit to deal with. Low cloud made visibility terrible, but that wouldn't faze the Australian…
At the first split, Kovarik was two seconds up on Steve Peat's qualifying time, and was charging hard through the Highland fog. Come the second split, Kovarik was a full seven seconds up on Peaty's qualifier and not looking like slowing down any time soon.
By the time he'd crossed the finish line at the foot of Aonach Mor, Chris Kovarik had put 14.02 seconds between himself and second placed rider, Cedric Gracia. 14 seconds!
Danny Hart, Champery, 2011 - 11.69 seconds
In 2011, Danny Hart would give everyone reason to believe that you can ride a track just as fast in the wet as you can in the dry.
Very much like Sam Hill's performance in Champery in 2007, Hart would take the Rainbow Stripes at the same venue four years later in shocking style. In fact, it's worth noting that all the World Champions crowned that day (Troy Brosnan, Emmeline Ragot and Manon Carpenter) won their stripes by over 10 seconds, including Hart.
"It's worth noting that all the World Champions crowned that day won their stripes by over 10 seconds, including Hart"
Anybody unfamiliar with the Champery track should know that nothing comes close to its unrelenting steepness. Average gradient is 1:2.5, but no photo or video can prepare you for just how steep this track is. Even in the dry, this course is fierce, so imagine what it's like in the wet...
The video says it all on this one, so watch up and try not to get too excited as Danny Hart dominates.
(Writer's note: I was in the woods above the final jumps when this happened. Despite the mud, the rain and having worked five weeks straight, I still found the energy to lose my sh*t as Hart came down the hill!)
Aaron Gwin, Val di Sol, 2012 - 7.85 seconds
US superstar Aaron Gwin has only been on the Elite World Cup circuit since 2008, but has already put his mark on the scene, winning two World Cup Series titles in six years.
Val di Sol, the Valley of the Sun in Italy, has more than once looked like it would bring home the goods for the Yank, but crashes and mechanicals have spoiled his day on a couple of occasions.
"Gwin went more than six seconds up by split two and made the gap just shy of eight by the finish"
2012 was to be Gwin's year though, and the fast, steep, natural and super technical course was pulled apart by the then Trek World Racing rider. Way up on split number one, Gwin then went more than six seconds up come split two and made the gap just shy of eight seconds by the time he reached the finish line.
Another video containing classic Rob Warner gold, you can hear the excitement in his voice as Gwin tears the Italian hillside to pieces.
Sam Hill, Champery (Qualifying), 2007 - 14 seconds
Sam Hill has made a considerable impact on downhill mountain biking since he exploded onto the scene in the early 2000s.
Very quickly becoming very fast, it was his years on an Iron Horse that granted him legendary status. Leader of the flat pedal, wide handlebar, neck brace, full attack riding revolution, the Antipodean stamped his mark firmly with some ridiculous wins on tough terrain.
"Hill's qualifying win at the Champery in 2007 left most others bemused. Despite the severity of the course, he crossed the line 14 seconds up on second place"
Schladming, Austria, has been very good to Sam Hill. Of the six times the World Cup has visited the infamous ski resort, Hill has taken the win four times. Three of those wins have been landslide victories on this 'true' downhill course.
His narrowest winning margin in those three years (2005, 2006 and 2007) was 5.14 seconds, the greatest, a hair's breadth over eight. Hill's win in Pila, Italy in 2005 was on a similar course in similar conditions. Rack up another near seven second win for the Aussie.
Hill's qualifying win at the inaugural Champery World Cup in 2007 left most other competitors bemused. Despite the severity of the course, he crossed the line a full 14 seconds up on second place... Madness. And we all know what happened in finals the day after.
Nicolas Vouilloz, Åre, 1999 - 6.41 seconds
The consummate professional, Nicolas Vouilloz has been winning races in stomping style since his Junior days.
Back in 1997, the young Frenchman made a massive mark at the Chateau d'Oex World Championships. The manner in which he dispatched the incredibly tight turns on this course put him leagues ahead of second place John Tomac.
"The manner in which he dispatched the tight turns put him leagues ahead of second place John Tomac."
A full 6.19 seconds up was different class. Fast forward to the 1999 Åre World Championships in Sweden and another 6+ second win for Vouilloz in miserable conditions. Leap forward to 2001 and at Arai Mountain in Japan, he would give himself another 6.47s cushion over second place Sean McCarroll.
These are just a few picks of Nicolas’ many multi-second wins, and considering that he’s won 10 World Championship golds, it’s not so surprising.