We’ve asked George to take us back through the 2021 DH World Cup, letting us relive the highs and lows, the dramatic finale, and already turning our thoughts to what comes next year.
Coming into the 2021 season, the women’s title race was the most open it has been in years, with six potential contenders. Leading the charge were 2020 World Cup Champion Marine Cabirou and World Champion Camille Balanche. Add into the mix three riders who’ve won at least one World Cup over the past couple of seasons: Tahnee Seagrave, Nina Hoffmann and Myriam Nicole. But all eyes were on Vali Höll, the young Austrian who had two incredible Junior Seasons, winning the World Championships and the series in both. This wasn’t her first year in Elite but having snapped her ankle in practice at the 2020 season opening World Championships, she declared this her ‘second first season’.
In the Men’s it was similar. Prior to the shortened 2020 season, the top five riders were firmly established: Loic Bruni, Amaury Pierron, Troy Brosnan, Danny Hart and Greg Minnaar. There were others such as Laurie Greenland and Loris Vergier knocking on the door but not with the same consistency. Then, in 2020 a new group of riders came to the fore; Vergier became ‘the man to beat’, 2020 World Champion Reece Wilson showed that his win was no fluke, Matt Walker took the Series, and France, a nation blessed with a wealth of talent, added National Champion Benoit Coulanges plus 2018 and 2019 Junior World Cup Series Champion Thibaut Daprela to the equation.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic scheduling proved difficult. The season was meant to kick off in Maribor in April, but that round was rescheduled for August. Round Three, Fort William was cancelled completely but the final round in Snowshoe was promoted to a double header to compensate. It was to be a six-race season: Leogang, Les Gets, Maribor, Lenzerheide and two rounds in Snowshoe with World Championships in Val Di Sole slap bang in the middle.
12/06/21 Round One – Leogang
The track, once bemoaned by many riders as being too ‘bike parky’ firmly ditched that tag after a rain soaked 2020 World Championships which saw the addition of a perilous new steep section.
The drama started early. Höll, on her local track, qualified fastest and was up at the final split before losing concentration on a rather innocuous section of track, handing Balanche the win. In the Men’s race Brosnan seeded first and finished first but it was Daprela who set tongues wagging. Three seconds up at the first split and going so fast he was taking lines no one else could get near; his entry into the woods was a piece of art. This was a section that had every rider puzzling, but he made it look ordinary. A mistake in the lower woods cost him the win but he still ended up second to Brosnan with Pierron in third.
04/07/21 Round Two – Les Gets
To set the scene for Les Gets we need to rewind to the last weekend in June and the French Cup at Les Arcs. Daprela crashed on Saturday sustaining a number of injuries including biting through three quarters of his tongue, and his teammate Amaury Pierron, winner of the 2019 race at Les Gets, was airlifted from the track with injuries to his kidney, liver and lungs; injuries which would end his hopes of taking the Series in 2021.
The track in Les Gets was new and very different to the old one. Considerably more technical with some difficult (read: awkward, large) jumps, it presented a much greater test for the riders. Myriam Nicole seeded first with an almost seven second margin, but she couldn’t keep it upright in her race run, ending up second. Neither though could Höll, crashing in the very final corner this time. Balanche however had another solid run for third and was displaying an impressive level of consistency, unlike Tahnee Seagrave who was battling a neck injury that would hamper her season. Seagrave however managed to battle through the pain in Les Gets to take the win.
Daprela, having barely managed to eat anything all week, seeded 33rd and in doing so set off early. He crossed the line two seconds up on Max Hartenstern with what looked like a solid Top 10 run. As well as bringing the fire he also brought the rain and by the time the final 10 riders dropped in, the track was a completely different animal and no one could get near Thibaut’s time, giving him his first World Cup victory. Amidst the carnage was perhaps the most memorable image of the whole season: Reece Wilson’s entry on to the piste. Bucked on take-off from the final jump he had a huge over the bars and in doing so earned the nickname ‘The Flying Scotsman’.
15/08/21 Round Three – Maribor
Let’s rewind once again because in the weeks before the World Cup there were not one but two races in Maribor. On 5th August there was an IXS Cup with Millie Johnset taking the win in the Women’s race and in the Men’s race Minnaar was victorious. Then on 8th August there were the European Championships with Monika Hrastnik taking the Women’s title and Loris Vergier the Men’s. Performances in these races would prove to be a fantastic marker for the World Cup with Johnset taking seventh and Hrastnik fourth in the Women’s race. French Men’s National Champion Benoit Coulanges would take sixth – and first-year Elite Dan Slack would take 10th.
Maribor is flat out from top to bottom with little line choice, and it’s a track Loris Vergier seems to like. Winning both of the ‘double header’ rounds in 2020, the aforementioned European title in 2021 and then seeding and the race at the World Cup; undoubtedly he is ‘the King of Maribor’. Daprela pushed him closest with Greenland in third – possibly peaking at just the right time for World Championships. In the Women’s, Nicole took another victory with Italy’s Eleonora Farina in second & Balanche in third.
By this point we were halfway through the season and in the Women’s title race Nicole and Balanche were tied for the lead on 560 points with Höll and Seagrave fighting for third. In the Men’s, Daprela, who had yet to finish outside the top two, had a 237-point advantage over Brosnan with Minnaar in third.
29/08/21 World Championships – Val Di Sole
To hold World Championships mid-season always feels a bit odd. It’s a one-off race so riders go ‘all in’ but would you do that if you were a contender for the series? And if you were prepared to roll the dice, would you do it on The Black Snake, one of the longest and most challenging tracks on the circuit? Daprela decided against it and who could blame him? The Men’s race looked to be between the winner of the 2019 World Cup in Val Di Sole, Laurie Greenland and Loris Vergier but with six senior World Championship wins between them you can never count out Minnaar and Bruni. Minnaar looked like he meant business all week, Bruni, nursing a leg injury, never quite made it to the same level. Vergier was on fire all week and set the fastest time in ‘seeding’ (another weird World Champs anomaly, seeding doesn’t affect the order riders race down the hill; this is set by their World Ranking). On race day Benoit Coulanges was the first man to go under 3:30 but six riders remained at the top. Brosnan followed and also went under 3:30 but a smidgen slower. Matt Walker was a couple of seconds back, but Minnaar went a smidgen faster. That left the French triumvirate of Vergier, Bruni and Daprela. Usually at World’s someone delivers ‘the run’; usually at Val Di Sole someone delivers ‘the run’ and we’ve seen some huge winning margins here in the past, but none of them could manage it and Minnaar at 39 years old won his fourth Elite World Championship. Amazing!
With three riders to go in the women’s race, Marine Cabirou sat in the hotseat with a 4:11.07. Hrastnik came next and was closest but still four seconds back, then Balanche got closer still with a 4:12.34. The final few riders in the men’s field might’ve failed to put ‘the run’ together but Myriam Nicole didn’t disappoint with an incredible 4:06.24 and with it grabbed the gold medal.
04/09/21 – Round 4 – Lenzerheide
Nothing much changed in Lenzerheide. Vergier put World Championships disappointment behind him and took his second consecutive win, Bruni finished second, Daprela third and an amazing ‘come back’ ride (he had raced World Champs but he struggled for fitness) for Amaury Pierron ensured a French quadrumvirate. Nicole continued her domination of the Women’s field – at this point there looked to be a clear gap between her and the rest. Seagrave took second and Höll third.
Heading into the final two rounds in Snowshoe, the titles looked to have been decided. Nicole had a 115-point lead over Balanche and Daprela a 186-point lead over Vergier. How wrong we were to assume…
15/09/21 and 18/09/21 – Round 5 and 6 – Snowshoe
The track in Snowshoe is reasonably flat with huge rock gardens so carrying speed is everything. The week started badly for Daprela, crashing in the seeding run for Round 5. Things didn’t get any better in his race run when his front wheel exploded in one of those rock gardens. Nil points. Reece Wilson did him a huge favour though by taking his first World Cup win and holding off Bruni in second, and more importantly Vergier in third.
Things didn’t go quite so badly for Myriam Nicole. She had won seeding with an incredible 3:39.5 which was over seven seconds ahead of Balanche who brought up the rest of the field, and only a fraction over 10 seconds off qualifying for the Men’s race. Staggering. Green in the first three splits and 3.6 up she crashed in Sector Four losing all her momentum. She got going again though and managed to scrape fourth behind Cabirou in third, Balanche in second and Höll who took her first World Cup win by over four seconds.
Just three days later the riders would do battle again. Daprela would not take part in the final showdown though; a crash in practice left him with a dislocated thumb and an open fracture to his right fibula. Still leading the series, he could still win the title should Vergier finish outside the Top 19 and Bruni outside the Top Five.
In the Women’s race no one was making any calculations. Myriam Nicole seeded fastest again, this time by ‘just’ five seconds. In race runs though Höll, who seeded fourth, looked like a completely different rider. That first World Cup win had clearly boosted her confidence, crossing the line exactly three seconds faster than Nicole’s qualifying time. Balanche came next but was five seconds back, then Cabirou who was just 0.3 off Höll’s time. The stage was set for the Queen to claim her throne, but Nicole started badly, slipping her chain as she left the gate. She recovered quickly though, fastest in sector two before crashing out turning at the end of a flat sprint section in the final sector. It cost her 10 seconds and inconceivably, the title. Winning the final two rounds was enough for Höll to take the series. Drama.
Daprela crashing out did not help Loris Vergier who now became the favourite for the series and to make matters worse the other contender was Bruni. Best friends and two years older, Bruni is the ‘big brother’ and has a clear psychological advantage. Whilst others shy away from the pressure, Bruni absorbs it; telling everyone that he wanted to win qualifying and be the last man down the hill. He would get his wish and Vergier would start three riders ahead of him. The younger man cracked though, riding too hard and making several mistakes. Penultimate rider Brosnan put together a sensational run taking the lead by 2.1 seconds. Needing a top five or better for the series, what would Bruni do? The thing about great riders is that they deliver at the right moments and Bruni didn’t disappoint. Up by nearly a second at the first split, he put together a near perfect run to take the win and the series title; just as he did at Snowshoe in 2019.
2021 was yet another incredible season with twists and turns, trials and tribulations and 2022 is just around the corner; so what will the big talking points be this offseason? Here are five to get the conversation started:
1. Will the Syndicate go back to a three & if so, who’s coming in? The Syndicate has traditionally always been a three but when Loris Vergier departed at the end of last season they decided to race as a two for 2021. The big rumour towards the end of the season was that Laurie Greenland was the man, and he would give them an instant podium threat, but there’s also talk of ‘the next generation’; or could a female rider such as Nina Hoffmann be incoming?
2. Is Benoit Coulanges on the move? French National Champion Coulanges has had two impressive seasons and is rumoured to be leaving the Dorval AM Commencal Team, but who will he sign for? There’s rumoured to be several suitors including Intense Factory Racing.
3. Talking of Intense Factory Racing… Gwin has been the World Cup Champion five times but not since 2017. Will 2022 be the year we see an Aaron Gwin comeback?
4. What will happen with Scott Factory Racing? Aside from Marine Cabirou it’s been a barren few years for Scott. Will they change it up for 2022?
5. With Emilie Siegenthaler retiring, who will take her slot on Pivot Factory Racing?
George will be bringing us race analysis throughout next year’s DH World Cup and World Championships – stay tuned!