All photos – Credit Red Bull Content Pool
If you were to design a track to provide the best spectacle for the sport of DH, you’d probably use a similar formula to Leogang: a super fast top section meaning tight times at the halfway point and then an incredibly difficult lower woods where riders have to risk it all if they want to win. It’s a fantastic formula and one that has created incredible World Cup racing in the past, and 2022 proved to be no different.
Just like the World Championships held here in 2020 the weather was unkind to the riders. Heavy rain on Thursday created treacherous conditions and destroyed the track. The rain continued on Friday but stopped in time for qualifying.
In Elite Women, series leader Camille Balanche seeded first with Vali Hoell, the first Austrian woman to take the overall title (and face of Leogang, with a section of track named in her honour), just half a second back. There was then a near 12 second gap to a resurgent Marine Cabirou with Myriam Nicole close behind and then a near 11 second gap to Eleonora Farina.
In the Men’s times were much tighter with two and a half seconds separating the top five. Benoit Coulanges would be coming down the hill last on Saturday after taking his maiden seeding win. Close behind were Finn Iles and then a triumvirate of British riders, Matt Walker, Danny Hart and Laurie Greenland.
By race day, the weather had changed and conditions were bright and sunny, but if anything this just made the conditions in the woods even worse, with the mud getting peanut butter sticky. In the Women’s race the early running was made by GB rider Louise-Anna Ferguson, who spent last winter in New Zealand and has become much faster for it. Having missed the practice day entirely due to travel issues, she qualified thirteenth on only her third run down the track and posted a 4:29.8 in her race run.
The first rider to get close to it was French BMX Champion Mathilde Bernard who was still 4.7 seconds back. Bronze medallist in 2020 and 2021 third place finisher Monika Hrastnik was over seven seconds up on Ferguson at split three but went down in Vali’s Hell, the notorious section of track named after the local legend. Hrastnik recovered well though and crossed the line under a second back on Ferguson. Nina Hoffmann, the winner of round two, was 11 seconds up at split three but crashed just a few yards further into Vali’s Hell than Hrastnik and then again moments later before giving up, crossing the line 11 seconds back.
It was only when Eleonora Farina came down that Ferguson had to relinquish the hotseat, with the Italian going five seconds quicker and in doing so beating Balanche’s fastest qualifier. That time didn’t hold for long though with World Champion Myriam Nicole going four seconds quicker still despite being four seconds back at the first split after a small crash. The Frenchwoman was on different lines to the previous riders and was the first rider to actually look comfortable in the woods. Marine Cabirou broke her back in the winter and unfortunately suffered the same injury in her race run going full scorpion in the stumps section leaving just the 2 fastest qualifiers at the top.
Hoell still searching for her first elite win on home soil was the only woman hitting the two big wooden kickers on the motorway before race day but in her race run she didn’t make it that far without incident, also crashing in the stumps. Hoell had been pushing so hard though that despite the crash she was only half a second back at split two but it all went wrong in the woods with an over the bars costing her 12 seconds. Balanche, unbeaten on this new track in Leogang after being crowned World Champion in 2020 and winning in 2021, hadn’t hit the big Red Bull Gap before race day but thought she would have to if she wanted to claim the threepeat. The Swiss woman put a faultless run together though, fastest in every sector, taking the win by over 11 seconds and could’ve easily gone around the jump and still won by six seconds.
1. Camille Balanche 4:08.218
2. Myriam Nicole 4:19.586
3. Eleonora Farina 4:24.281
4. Louise-Anna Ferguson 4:29.876
5. Monika Hrastnik 4:30.258
Over to the Men then… It wasn’t until 21st qualifier and guest on the recent episode of the Making Up The Numbers podcast Dakotah Norton came down that the action really hotted up. Dylan Levesque was pushing him close but terrifyingly lost his pedal just before the Red Bull gap and Norton’s 3:33.6 held until the protected riders started coming down.
First it was Loris Vergier, bravely dressed in all white who went green by just over a second and a half. Vergier knew his time wouldn’t hold though but was happy to post a time. Riders fighting for the overall knew very well that this wasn’t where it would be won but where it could be lost. World Champion Greg Minnaar was pushing so hard he jumped out of the motorway onto the wooden wall ride with too much speed and somehow exited too soon crossing through the tape on the opposite side.
Trying to become the first man in history to win the opening three rounds of the World Cup season, Amaury Pierron was next in the gate. Pierron went fastest but he looked tight and never quite found his groove and he wasn’t in the hotseat for long as Angel Suarez Alonso went quicker by 0.2. The Spaniard was the first rider to throw caution to the wind as they entered the woods, there would be more of that to come. Local boy Andreas Kolb returning from a broken elbow had a run to remember and slotted in between Pierron and Vergier, and Aaron Gwin looked to be getting some form back with a run that would end up eleventh.
Into the Top 10… Charlie Hatton had a career best result, crossing the line two seconds behind his team mate Kolb, good enough for eighth on the day. Thibaut Daprela pushed incredibly hard but his wild ride ended as he slid out in the mud and got tangled in the tape. Returning from injury, last year’s winner Troy Brosnan looked smooth but lost time all the way down.
Into the final five… Laurie Greenland was somehow three seconds up at the first split but looped out manualing some uphill rollers. Danny Hart (also on the latest episode of the podcast) put together a classic run, the likes of which we haven’t seen from him for a good few years. Famous for his ability in steep muddy conditions after winning the 2011 World Championships in Champery by 11 seconds, Hart went into the lead by 1.2. He was delighted and rightly so – it looked like it might be the winning run. Next in the start gate though was his countryman and former teammate, Matt Walker. Walker was the most aggressive I’ve ever seen him ride, bullying the bike through sections and swapping the lead with Hart all the way down the track. He nearly lost the back end as he entered the woods but that just seemed to make him go harder still and he went into the lead by 0.3. Incredible racing!
With Brits in first and second just Canada’s Finn Iles and France’s Benoit Coulanges were left to come. Iles, after five weeks out with concussion pushed hard but it was messy and he crossed the line 2.7 second back. Coulanges fastest at splits one, two and three was pulling away from Walker before a mistake in the woods lead to him coming unclipped and he crashed moments later.
In a classic race, Walker, the 2020 Overall World Cup winner took his first World Cup win. Racing doesn’t get much better than this! ,
1. Matt Walker 3:28.816
2. Danny Hart 3:29.141
3. Angel Suarez Alonso 3:30.370
4. Amaury Pierron 3:30.530
5. Andreas Kolb 3:31.249
In Junior Men, Walker’s teammate Jordan Williams crowned a fantastic weekend for Madison Saracen taking the win. Fastest qualifier Jackson Goldstone crashed getting bucked on a stump but still held on for second with Lachlan Stevens-McNab in third.
In Junior Women Britain’s Phoebe Gale won by 14 seconds from Jenna Hastings with Gracey Hemstreet in third.
Overall standings after Round 3
- Camille Balanche 685
- Myriam Nicole 555
- Vali Hoell 460
- Eleonora Farina 395
- Nina Hoffmann 368
- Amaury Pierron 580
- Matt Walker 443
- Danny Hart 401
- Benoit Coulanges 380
- Laurie Greenland 354
World Cup racing returns in four weeks with Round Four in Lenzerheide. Let’s hope it’s just as epic as Round Three!
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