Downhill competition filled the race programme today at the Mont Sainte Anne World Championships in Quebec, with the Junior and Elite Men's and Women's Championship races taking place. The changeable weather continued throughout the day, and just like the previous four days of events for the New Zealanders, so too did their fortunes.
The Junior categories started the programme off after a short practice period in the morning. Steady rain overnight had again turned the Mont Sainte Anne mountain into a variable surface race course, at times drying rapidly, with riders sometimes struggling with tyre choice, how far to push, and hitting race lines learnt during a long period of training in the dry. Sarah Atkin (Wellington) had the honour of being first starter in the championship race, but struggled to hold a clean run together with two crashes and a time that would only be good enough for fifth place. Charlotte Clouston (Waimauku) had wrenched a wrist in the morning’s practice session, and was tentative but determined to ride a strong race, eventually taking sixth place. The third Kiwi off the line was Madeline Taylor (Hawkes Bay). Taylor had struggled all week with the physical nature of the Mont Sainte Anne course, suffering through arm pump caused by the continual impact that downhill racing on a mountain like this delivers. Taylor had saved her best effort for the final, and held podium pace right to the very last jump, where she couldn’t hold on to her bike and crashed just short of the line, losing so much time in recovering her bike that any hope of a top result was out of reach.
The Junior Men's race had been much anticipated for New Zealand since the curtain went down on the 2009 World Championships. Second year junior George Brannigan (Hawkes Bay) had narrowly missed winning the 2010 World Cup the weekend before in Windham, New York, and desperately wanted the World Championship title to finish off his European season on a high note. Brannigan was fourth to last starter, with 38 other riders completing their runs before him. Jimmy Wilson (Christchurch) and Sam Baker (Waimauku) nursed badly twisted ankles through their race runs, but on the physically demanding Mont Sainte Anne course, they were always going to be up against it. Daniel Franks (Christchurch) enjoyed some time in the leader's hot seat, holding the fastest time for a period covering several other riders. Jed Rooney (Oamaru) joined Franks in the hot seat and then Rupert Chapman (Christchurch) also bumped them down a spot on the leader's board. The small crowd of vocal New Zealand supporters held their breaths as Brannigan worked his way down the mountain at race winning pace, and couldn’t quite believe the big screen images of Brannigan losing control of his bike and crashing on a section of course he had cleaned all week. More than 10 seconds lost in that off cost him any chance of claiming the win, and he had to settle for a bitterly disappointing fourth place. Brannigan’s nemesis over the European World Cup season, Troy Brosnan (Australia), won the coveted title, completing a rare World Cup/Championship double.
The feature event the crowds had come to see was the Elite Men's race. First New Zealander to start was Kieran Bennett (Nelson) who had an absolute nightmare run. Breaking his frame through the seatpost and puncturing towards the bottom of the course put an end to Bennett’s World Championships campaign. Outgoing Junior World Champion Brook MacDonald was confident, calm and composed leaving the start gate and had podium pace right through the first two splits, but a small wash-out sucked too much time from him; while MacDonald held provisional third for some time, he would eventually finish 12th. Wyn Masters was next away, and after a reasonably unsuccessful season by his own standards, wanted to leave the World Championships having salvaged a top result. Masters didn’t have the legs on the day, finding himself unable to ride at the pace he needed. While the star of cult favourite WynTV was still able to turn on his crowd pleasing style, it didn’t translate to out and out pace on the scoreboard. Dunedin’s Justin Leov was next. Leov had this course dialled in practice but lost significant time in a similar course position to MacDonald, and his title shot was over in a matter of a few lost seconds, taking 14th. All New Zealand hopes now rested on Sam Blenkinsop as the last New Zealand starter. Blenkinsop was more than capable of taking this one, but the weather had again played its part, starting to rain quite solidly for the last 20 starters. Blenkinsop was off winning pace right from the start, and in a sport where winning is often measured in the hundredths of a second, coupled with now greasy exposed corners, he couldn’t make any time up over the lower parts of the course, finishing 9th. Australian Sam Hill's return to top level competition after an early season shoulder injury had the ultimate conclusion, with Hill claiming the rainbow jersey World Championship title by a comfortable 2 1/2 second margin.
The New Zealand Team was disappointed in the range of results through the categories contested today, having had realistic and high hopes of bringing home titles in each. However, some consolation was gained as the UCI released the Nation Rankings post-competition. New Zealand advanced up the rankings to number one nation for Junior Men, number two nation for Elite Men and number three nation for Junior Women.
The New Zealand Mountain Bike Team now disperses to home bases. Many athletes will be returning to New Zealand over the next two days, with the balance scheduled to be back at home before the end of the month.