Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Velo magazine, the annual awards issue.
If his career had simply come to a quiet end after his 2009 World Cup series victory, Julien Absalon would still have been lauded as arguably the greatest cross-country racer in history. However, the French champion wasn’t done then. Not by a long shot.
From 2010 through 2013, he struggled with results that were, for him, sub-par. His DNF at the London Olympic Games may have been the nadir, as younger riders began to eclipse the five-time World Cup winner.
However, in 2014, he came storming back. The 34-year-old made his intentions clear, winning the first two World Cup rounds in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and Cairns, Australia. Though he ceded four of the seven rounds to Swiss rival Nino Schurter, Absalon was consistently on the podium in all but one of the World Cups.
Naturally, he rode the entire season in the red, white, and blue jersey as French national champion, a title he’s held non-stop since 2003. Plus, he claimed the European championships in June at St. Wendel, Germany.
But as is the case with any elite mountain biker, Abaslon’s season would hinge on his performance at the world championships. Sure enough, aboard a BMC full-suspension race bike — something entirely different for a rider who has preferred hardtails with little exception — he bested Schurter in Norway. More than anything, Absalon’s margin of victory was convincing. He won by nearly two minutes, a country mile in XC, a discipline that has offered increasingly tight competition with shorter, faster courses.
Absalon’s fifth world title sent a clear message. After a seven-year rainbow jersey drought, the flying Frenchman was back. And he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
In recent years, it was difficult to talk about British downhillers without using the name, “Atherton.” Rachel Atherton is a two-time British national champion as well as a world champion, and brother Gee is twice world champ. However, fans of mountain biking’s most precise and technical discipline have been learning a new name. With eight major UCI wins to her credit, it’s no wonder that Wales’ Manon Carpenter has assumed the mantel as the queen of downhill.
A mere 21 years old, the Madison Saracen rider won three World Cup stops on three different continents — Leogang in Austria, Mont Sainte Anne in Canada, and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa — showcasing her versatility and precocious professionalism.
Beyond her wins, she was never outside of the top-five at World Cups. Plus, she notched an especially impressive second place at Cairns, Australia, where the jungle track was impossibly slippery and muddy.
Though her second-place finish at the British downhill national championship was likely a disappointment (naturally, she was beaten by Rachel Atherton), Carpenter came through when the chips were down at the world championships. Hafjell, Norway offered up a rough, raw track, much to the delight of the world’s fastest downhillers. Carpenter again was pitted against countrywoman Atherton and prevailed by a slim eight hundredths of a second.
In a sport where success hinges on attention to detail and mental toughness — all while careening down the world’s most difficult trails — Carpenter showed class that belies her young age. Though it may be too soon to predict her future as the next dominator in downhill, it’s likely that we’ll look back on 2014 as a harbinger of the Carpenter era.