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Highlights from UCI Mountain Bike World Championship

At the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, Rachel Atherton is back on top where she belongs, while old hands Julien Absalon and Greg Minaar each take silver to show they are still at the top of their game.

The first Shimano athlete to take home a medal was 23-year-old star Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. It seems the universe is the limit for this young racer. She is the first person to win the world road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike titles in a single season. We can now add two golds to that list.

Despite crashing a mere 10 minutes before the mixed Cross-country Team Relay and showing up with a bandage patched across her chin, Ferrand-Prévot was more motivated than ever as a result - ‘I was in shock at first,’ she said, ‘because it was a hard crash… there was a lot of blood’. Cool as a cucumber, she did the job and ensured that gold stayed with France.

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot

Ferrand- Prévot takes Cross-country Olympic

Three days later, Ferrand-Prévot powered to a convincing victory in the Women Elite Cross-country Olympic. Early on Jolanda Neff, who at 22 was given special permission by UCI to compete in the Elite category, blew open an impressive gap on a climb. But Ferrand-Prévot – just 23 herself, and so officially an ‘Elite’ – showed uncanny composure and nerves of steel. Like a predatory cat, she patiently sized up her opponents, passing them one by one, and by the final lap she had struck a massive and unassailable gap with her opponents. 

Rachel Atherton restores order

In the Women Elite Downhill, Rachel Atherton restored order, taking back the gold from fellow-Shimano athlete Manon Carpenter. Rachel Atherton, the last out of the starting blocks, had it all to prove, and shaved three seconds off Carpenter’s impressive time. Perhaps Atherton’s special edition GB flag bike gave her that extra burst of adrenaline. A GT Fury powered by a Shimano Saint drivetrain and Pro Tharsis 9.8 components, co-created incidentally with the Atherton siblings, this bike would surely take gold in the coolest bike of the championships contest.

Thirty-somethings still contenders

Three Shimano athletes made it to the podium in the various men’s disciplines, winning two silvers and a bronze. Julien Absalon, whose list of honours includes Olympic gold medals and five cross-country world titles, put the pressure on rival Nino Schurter’s shoulders before the race, pointing out that Schurter had just won three world cup races that summer. Schurter promptly lived up to his status as favourite, taking the lead in the first lap and capitalizing on sloppy riding by rivals on the camber.

At that point, many might have written off Absalon, or anyone else for that matter. Absalon was on Schurter’s wheel, though, coming into the second lap, and not a single fan was in doubt at this point that a two-horse race was in the making. Schurter’s riding on the high line was superior, but as he crossed the line to finish lap four, Absalon was still breathing down his neck.

During lap five, Schurter and Absalon both went into the attack, but it was Schurter’s fall that broke open the race – not like you’d think though. To Schurter’s credit, and that’s why he deserved to take gold today, he crushed the deficit he had built up and even went on to strike a decisive gap between himself and Absalon, just big enough to keep his rival behind him.

Minnaar takes silver in one-off race

Greg Minnaar is like a Stellenbosch Shiraz: he gets better as he ages. Think about it: he won his first Men Elite Downhill world championship in 2003 at the age of 21, but he was over 30 when he won his next two, in 2012 and 2013. And the nature of the race – ‘it’s a one-off race once a year’ he told us – means anything can happen.

Minnaar took position at the start with six riders to go. He carved through the course, tearing 5.5 seconds off the best time at the second split, and 4.2 seconds as he burst through the finish. To celebrate, he leapt sideways from his bike, over the advertising boards and into the arms of ecstatic fans. Had he done it? Now it was a game of wait-and-see for Minnaar in the hot seat.

Left: Greg Minnaar and right: Gee Atherton

Defending champion Gee Atherton was up next it, but a crash dashed his hopes 2.5 minutes into the race. Still in the hot seat, Minnaar watched his teammate at Santa Cruz Syndicate, Joyce ‘Ratboy’ Bryceland, line up at the start. At the second split, Bryceland was 2.8 seconds behind, and though he ploughed through the bottom half of the course, reducing the deficit to 2.4 seconds, he had to settle for bronze today.

Minnaar’s dream and stay in the hot seat ended right then and there. Loïc Bruni, just 21 years old, took the race by the horns and was ahead at all the splits, ending 2.3 seconds ahead of Minnaar to take his first major victory. We saw Minnaar drinking from a bottle afterwards, probably not a Shiraz. Congratulations to all three winners for a toe-curling final.

If this championship proved anything, it’s that age doesn’t matter, with the medallists’ ages ranging from 18 to 38. Sometimes new blood blasts through the rankings, but sometimes wisdom and experience can still outfox youth. 

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