By Kip Mikler , VeloNews Editor
All is back to normal in the world of downhill racing, with the rainbow jerseys draped safely over the shoulders of their rightful owners. Those owners, of course, are French. On a picturesque autumn day in Colorado’s Vail Valley, Anne-Caroline Chausson and Nicolas Vouilloz won the elite world downhill championships during the second day of competition on Saturday.
Between them, the two French downhillers now have 18 world downhill championships.
For Vouilloz, whose time of 3:35.20 on the 1.43-mile course was more than two seconds faster than his nearest competitor, it was a bit of redemption. The man who earned the title “the Alien” by winning eight consecutive titles in the 1990s, lost that jersey last summer when American Myles Rockwell pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in the history of the sport when he won the title in Spain.
That slip-up, which was actually due to the punctured tire of a manufacturer Vouilloz has since dumped, was followed by an uncharacteristic 2001 season in which Vouilloz won just one World Cup race and finished second in the overall standings.
But after a ripping run on a physically demanding course that dropped 1450 feet through the woods and open alpine slopes of Vail Mountain, Vouilloz was over it.
“The World Cup is good, but when you win the world championships, you get the jersey with the stripes on it,” he said.
To get those stripes, Vouilloz had to beat the top qualifier and the man who, despite coming off an injury, seemed to have the momentum. Great Britain’s Steve Peat, the fastest elite man to have never won a world title, is widely considered Vouilloz’s top rival. Peat won two World Cups early in the season and shoved the Frenchman out of his way to take the UCI No. 1 ranking. When healthy, Peat basically owned Vouilloz.
But the big Brit was off his game on Saturday. “I just couldn’t find my lines,” he said. “It was just one of those days where I couldn’t find my rhythm.”
To the large gathering of spectators who hiked up the mountain and squeezed between the fall foliage of the aspen trees to watch mountain biking’s daredevils put it all on the line, the biggest challenges seemed to be the sick steeps, the wheel-breaking rocks and the massive rock drops.
The names of the technical sections – names like Jailhouse Rock, Dew Drop Inn, Bud Light Bailout and Lincoln Log Jump – are too cute to be considered accurate descriptions.
Still, Vouilloz – known as the world’s smoothest on the really rough stuff – said things like that were nothing. What got him was the lung-busting pedaling followed by the violent jarring in the woods.
“It was really hard to stay on the bike,” he said.
Peat agreed. “I sat down after the road section to try and catch my breath but really I should have just gone for it,” he said.
Perhaps. Despite feeling unfocused, Peat finished just 2.35 seconds off of Vouilloz’s winning run, in which he averaged just under 24 mph.
Finishing third among the men was one of downhill racing’s biggest stories in 2001, South African Greg Minnaar. Minnaar, dubbed the “Fresh Prince of Big Air,” lived up to his nickname by pulling the day’s most heart-stopping move when he doubled the huge natural drop-off known as Bailey’s Bailout.
Minnaar survived that decision and actually gained a sliver of time that put him in contention to beat Vouilloz’s time as he approached the finish. Then, after throttling down the near vertical, off-camber run to the finish line, the 19-year-old slipped a pedal less than 20 feet before the finish line, came off the back of his bike, then stacked it hard into the barriers, drawing a huge gasp from the finish line crowd. The Global Racing pro lay motionless for a few minutes before finally getting to his feet with some assistance from medical personnel. Minnaar was battered and bloody, but before going for a thorough medical exam, he was taken to the podium to collect his bronze medal, the first for a rider from the continent of Africa.
A dramatic crash also played a part in the women’s race. American Missy Giove, who took a heavy blow to the head after a qualifying crash on the Jailhouse Rock section and had to get clearance from U.S. team medical personnel just to start Saturday, took another tumble in the finals.
Because of that qualifying crash, Giove started early in the finals and was on schedule for a time better than Chausson’s qualifying time when she lost it in the steep finishing chute.
Giove came off her line and cartwheeled down the rocky ski slope. In a scary moment, the former world champion stood up, then crumpled to the ground. Initial reports from U.S. team personnel indicated Giove was fine, but she was taken to an area hospital to make sure after complaining of “sharp pains” in her head.
Chausson had no such trouble. Continuing a dynasty of New York Yankees proportions, she won her ninth consecutive downhill world title. The competition among the 29 women representing 15 nations was exciting and close until Chausson stepped up.
The Volvo-Cannondale pro blew away the previous best time, set by the impressive Brit Fionn Griffiths, by more than four seconds. Griffiths would have to settle for silver, but at age 19 it’s clear she has a future.
Third place went to a radiant Leigh Donovan, who in the final downhill race of her career, scored a world championship medal for the first time since 1996. For Donovan, who ripped a near-perfect run that was 4.71 seconds off Chausson’s winning time of 4:10.37, it was a fitting end to a legendary career.
– Myles Rockwell had the top American finish for the men. In what he called his best race this season, the defending world champion finished seventh.
– American Kirt Voreis was on his way to a top-10 finish before a crash ended his hopes. Voreis finished 26th.
– The day’s winners weren’t the fastest in the speed trap set up in an open section between technical challenges. Vouilloz, clocked at 29.89 mph was 12th, and Chausson, at 26.62 mph, was eighth. Fastest through the traps were Minnaar and Marielle Saner of Switzerland.
UCI MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIPS, Vail, Colorado. September 6-16.
1. Anne-Caroline Chausson, France, 1.43 miles in 4:10.37; 2. Fionn Griffiths, Great Britain, at 4.28; 3. Leigh Donovan, United States, at 4.71; 4. Sabrina Jonnier, France at 9.35; 5. Vanessa Quin, New Zeland, at 11.05; 6. Katja Repo, Finland, at 11.51; 7. Sarah Stieger, Switzerland, at 11.83; 8. Marielle Saner, Switzerland, at 12.09; 9. Tracey Moseley, Great Britain, at 12.74; 10. Marla Streb, United States, at 13.19; 11. Kathy Pruitt, United States, at 18.54; 12. Elke Brutsaert, United States, at 20.60; 13. Tai-Lee Muxlow, Australia, at 26.11; 14. April Lawyer, United States, at 28.08; 15. Anneke Beerten, Netherlands, at 36.33; 16. Barb Haley, Canada, at 38.10; 17. Sandra Walker, Switzerland, at 40.53; 18. Adele Croxon, Great Britain, at 40.97; 19. Helena Kurandova, Czech Republic, at 50.54; 20. Mami Masuda, Japan, at 55.02; 21. Niki Gudex, Australia, at 57.46; 22.Petra Bernhard, Austria, at 1:05.39; 23. Kylie Webb, Australia, at 1:18.19; 24. Bridgette Minnaar, South Africa, at 4:33.34; 25. Carolina Teobaldo, Argentina, at 1:57.64; 26. Julie Rudman, South Africa, at 2:26.70; Amelie Thevoz, Switzerland, DSQ; Sylvie Allen, Canada, DSQ; Missy Giove, United States, DNF;;
1. Nicolas Vouilloz, France, 1.43 miles in 3:35.20; 2. Steve Peat, Great Britain, at 2.35; 3.Greg Minnaar, South Africa, at 2.64; 4. Chris Kovaric, Australia, at 4.54; 5. Filip Polc, Slovakia, at 8.46; 6. Mickael Pascal, France, at 9.73; 7. Myles Rockwell, United States, at at 11.32; 8. Nathan Rennie, Australia, at 11.35; 9. Michael Ronning, Australia, at 11.69; 10. Cedric Garcia, France, at 12.41; 11. Nathan Rankin, New Zealand, at 12.90; 12. David Vasquez Lopez, Spain, at 13.22; 13. Will Longden, Great Britain, at 13.85; 14. Tomas Misser Vilaseca, Spain, at 14.78; 15. Bas De Bever, Netherlands, at 14.99; 16. Eric Carter, United States, at 15.12; 17. Rob Warner, Great Britain, at 15.53; 18. Thomas Ryser, Switzerland, at 15.55; 19. Joel Panozzo, Australia, at 15.99; 20. Jared Rando, Australia, at 16.21; 21. Corrado Herin, Italy, at 16.42; 22. Dustin Adams, Canada, at 16.95; 23. Sean McCarroll, Australia, at 18.03; 24. Michal Marosi, Czech Republic, at 18.23; 25. M. Berchtold, Brazil, at 18.36; 26. Kirt Voreis, United States, at 18.74; 27. Claudio Caluori, Switzerland, at 18.81; 28. Markus Klausmann, Germany, at 18.82; 29. Karim Amour, France, at 18.96; 30. Pau Misser Vilaseca, Spain, at 19.11; 31. C. Carrick-Anderson, Great Britain, at 20.61; 32. Derin Stockton, United States, at 20.81; 33. Andrew Shandro, Canada, at 21.12; 34. Wilfred Van der Haterd, Netherlands, at 21.30; 35. John Waddell, Australia, at 21.39; 36. David Watson, Canada, at 22.16; 37. Richard Lancaster, United States, at 22.82; 38. Vlastimil Hyncica, Czech Republic, at 23.09; 39. Rich Houseman, United States, at 23.34; 40. Colin Bailey, United States, at 23.65; 41. Zigmars Skolins, Latvia, at 25.35; 42. Bruno Zanchi, Italy, at 25.70; 43. Leon May, Canada, at 26.10; 44. Glynn O’Brien, Ireland, at 26.20; 45. Francisco Pizarro, Chile, at 26.63; 46. Guido Tschugg, Germany, at 27.26; 47. Frank Schneider, Germany, at 28.34; 48. Gert Tholen, Netherlands, at 28.49; 49. Trevor Porter, Canada, at 29.25; 50. Andrew Yoong, Ireland, at 30.26; 51. Rob Hewitt, Canada, at 30.30; 52. Duane Stander, South Africa, at 32.33; 53. Grzegorz Zielinski, Poland, at 33.34; 54. Masashi Takemoto, Japan, at 35.90; 55.Himar Sanchez Salminem, Spain, at 37.62; 56. Matthias Haas, Austria, at 39.44; 57. John Lawlor, Ireland, at 39.48; 58. Gary Barnard, South Africa, at 39.73; 59. Juan Ocampo, Colombia, at 40.10; 60. Jose Luis Perez Tejeda, Mexico, at 40.64; 61. Tim Goodwin, South Africa, at 40.71; 62. Stefan Ceman, Slovakia, at 41.48; 63. Markus Petschenig, Austria, at 43.89; 64. Visa Malinen, Finland, at 44.71; 65. Tyronne Rubelow, South Africa, at 44.92; 66. Pablo Cingolani, Argentina, at 45.13; 67. Dirk Lourens, South Africa, at 47.34; 68. Antonio Marcos Lira, Brazil, at 48.26; 69. Federico Ocampo, Colombia, at 49.70; 70. Mike Mihai Moga, Romania, at 55.42; 71. Eduardo Rodriguez, Mexico, at 55.83; Theo Duarte De Mello, Brazil, at 1:31.95; 73. John Nation, Venezuela, at 1:42.40; 74. Gustavo Fernandez, Venezuela, at 1:45.14; 75. Nikolay Titev, Bulgaria, at 2:27.56; Ivan Oulego Moreno, Spain, DSQ; John Kirkaldie, New Zealand, DSQ; Todd LeDuc, United States, DSQ; Ryo Uchijima, Japan, DSQ; Yasushi Adachi, Japan, DNS