|Greg Minnaar sailing down the hill on his way to the World Cup overall title. Fraser Britton photo.|
For the final round of the 2008 World Cup downhill season, the circus made its way to the Planai ski resort in the small town of Schladming, Austria. The overall series standings had been closer for both the men and women than any year in recent memory, with less than 160 points separating first and second place for the men and less than 100 for the women. There was a total of 250 points up for grabs in each round, so it was truly anyone’s game with three racers in contention for both the men and the women. The story of the weekend wouldn’t be the overall series winner, however, but a young Kiwi who made history.
With defending Champion Sam Hill trailing by about 160 points, Greg Minnaar needed to get a top five in both qualifying and finals in order to guarantee himself the overall victory. Hill, however, had to achieve perfection and take home victories in both runs, as well as hope Minnaar somehow fell out of the top five on a track on which he has been fairly consistent. Hill has won three out of four years here at Schladming, by ever-increasing margins, but Minnaar has never been outside of the top five.
Almost to the very last, racers love the course at Schladming. “The most fun I have ever had on a bike,” according to Transcend Orange team rider Dave Trumpore. Besides being a blast to ride, the course seems tailor-made to suit Hill’s riding styleâ€”steep, twisty and technical up top and frighteningly fast for the last 30 seconds. Minnaar is slower on the technical sections but more than makes up for it in any section where you have to put the power down. He proved this at the last round in Australia when he beat Hill by a jaw-dropping eight seconds to vault into the lead.
The weather was beautiful up until Thursday night, and then it turned ugly. Perhaps the biggest, most sudden thunderstorm I have ever see moved in with howling winds, crashing lightning and torrential rains. Riders, staff, journalists and UCI employees alike stood on our hotel balconies and watched the storm roll over the course. Luckily, the dirt at Planai is very sandy and drains well. Besides a few new sections, the track held up extremely well until race day.
Friday night saw the torrential rain return, right in time for the World Cup Four-Cross finals. Anneke Beerten was a lock for the women’s title and was hungry for a win at the home World Cup for her MS Intense racing team. It was not to be, however, as she got passed by Romana Labounkova for the win. Beerten took second with Jana Harakova and local Angelika Hohenwarter rounding out the finals.
The men’s race took ages to run, due to a large field and a protest in the semi-finals that the UCI ruled on after 20 minutes of pissing rain. Romain Saladini took home the win, after barely making the finals. Saladini jumped a gate in the semis but for some reason the UCI ruled in his favor and allowed him to race in the finals. Dan Atherton took home second place with Joost Wichman in third and Jakub Hnidak bringing up the rear.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, but with threatening clouds in the distance and rain forecast in the morning weather reports. Morning practice runs were serious business on a slimy course, particularly in the woods where the roots were showing much more than earlier in the week. Rider after rider was piling it up into the trees.
Qualifying took place early and saw Hill ride into fourth place with Minnaar back in sixth. Kiwi Sam Blenkinsop qualified first in what would turn out to be the perfect start to the biggest day of his career. Hill’s Monster teammate Brendan Fairclough rolled through in second place, a career-best qualifying result for him as well. Sadly, there was a 45-minute course hold as Matt Simmonds of the UK flew off course over a large table top near the upper sections and took out a young photographer. Simmonds banged his head up pretty good and broke his fork in half, but the young photographer had to be med-evaced out by helicopter due to a head injury he sustained in the collision.
Rachel Atherton qualified first ahead of Floriane Pugin for the women, and would eventually take home the win for the women as well as securing the overall title for her Animal CommenÃ§al team. Pugin would mirror her qualifying result in second and defending champion Sabrina Jonnier finished third, visibly disappointed in her run.
With the off-pace run by Hill in the semis, Minnaar only needed a 7th place in the finals to take home the World Cup overall title. Minnaar came down and rolled into first place with only five riders left to go, guaranteeing himself the title. The South African would end up in 5th place overall. Hill would best the new champion’s time but his destiny was out of his control at that point. The Monster Energy rider hit a tree high up on the course and smashed his shoulder, coming to a complete stop. The Aussie took his place in the hot seat with a visibly sore shoulder and only his teammate and Blenkinsop to were left to ride.
Fairclough tore down the course and was up by as much as two seconds at the split. More friends than teammates, Hill broke into a huge grin. If he had to lose, losing to the Englishman would be the way to do it. Just as he came out of the last woods and into the open, Fairclough got catapulted off of his bike when he hit a root. Sadly his day would end there, as he coasted the rest of the way and took a mid-pack finish.
“I didn’t really feel any pressure, it was always going to be real hard to close the gap on Greg,” said Hill in the finish area. “I pretty much just wanted to come here and win qualifying and the race. But I was off in qualifyingâ€”that bummed me out a bit. I couldn’t get into it. I started making mistake after mistake in that run. It makes it really hard to get going. In the middle somewhere I slammed a tree with my shoulder. I was trying to keep it going but got a bit wild in the middle somewhere.”
As Blenkinsop left the gate, all eyes were on the Jumbotron. He was definitely fast, but it wasn’t until he hit the wide-open grass sections at the bottom that it was obvious just how fast he was. Gloveless and sliding through the mud, it looked like Blenskinsop was riding a 450F and not a downhill bike. He crossed the line with a 4:10.56 time, 1.64 seconds ahead of Hill. Thanks to him, the Kiwi national anthem was played for the first time at a World Cup podium ceremony.
Blenkinsop was so new to winning at this level he had no idea what to do in the finish area and had to be prodded by photographers to climb aboard the “hot seat truck” and savor the moment. The elated Kiwi spoke afterwards: “I was just having fun the whole weekend. I didn’t think I would do so well. I was loving the track and my bike was just awesome on this course. I’m going to train real hard and hopefully they will have some sick tracks like this next year, I can’t wait.”
(Ed note: A condensed version of this article was published in Dirt Rag Issue #139.)