WC #1 // Lourdes, France
As thousands upon thousands of fans were herded from the Lourdes venue in 2017, robbed of a fair race by a mid-finals rainstorm, none could have predicted the years to come - the changes in the sport, the new names to join the top end of the results sheet, and of course the dreaded C word. 5 years later, the 40,000 strong crowd headed back to the now-storied hill, nestled in the south of France, nearing the Spanish border, in hopes of witnessing something special. They got what they had hoped for and so much more.
At just under 3 minutes for the world’s fastest racers, the Lourdes track is a true test of bike and rider - mixing in high-speed sections, jumps, rock gardens, and many an upper-body testing compression - setting the perfect stage to get the 2022 season underway.
As a surprise to many, the opener brought a week of sunshine, leaving the track to get faster and rougher as the week progressed. Riders struggled to get enough practice in due to complications with the uplift, throwing a wrench into everyone's plans and upping the demands on the riders even further. Those who could get up to speed quickly were rewarded, and those who couldn't would come to pay the price come race day.
Qualifying day at most venues is somewhat of a teaser for race day - the pressure of the clock, but less on the line, and a somewhat peaceful hillside - but not in Lourdes. Eager to see as much speed as possible, the Lourdes fans poured in for qualifying on mass, covering the hillside.
As qualifying grew closer, fan upon fan arrived to watch the season preview for tomorrow’s final - who was fast, who was not, who had what it takes to grab the elusive top spot. At the close of play, Vali Hoell and Loic Bruni were on top, but their competitors were closer, eager, and ready to fight again come finals time.
New team, same result! This off-season, Jackson Goldstone stepped up to a factory support program in the form of the Santa Cruz Syndicate. There's no doubt he's a talented rider, and yet again, he proved it, taking the top spot for the Junior men and putting down a time that would have seen him finish 11th in the Elite men's field. The future is bright!
On her World Cup debut, Gracey Hemstreet proved she had the speed. After qualifying 2nd, she found an extra gear come finals, and with that, an extra 12 seconds over her qualifying time to claim the top spot in the Junior women's field.
Tahnee Seagrave's 2021 was full of ups and downs. After a year of injury woes, it was time for a fresh start. From the outset, it was clear Tahnee meant business this weekend. She looked to be up speed right from the first run and carried that momentum through to finals to claim 3rd; A great start to the season.
Myriam Nicole crashed hard in morning practice, putting her on the back foot for the afternoon’s race, and then a mid-race mistake almost caused another big crash. Impressively, Myriam walked away with second place on the day, right in the mix for the championship fight, and showing how capable she is even on days that don’t go to plan.
For the third season in a row, Dorval AM’s Camille Balanche won the season opener and helped take her team to team of the day with it. Balanche was unsure of how this weekend would go after only riding her new race bike for a few weeks - is there even more speed to come as the season progresses?
The results sheet can tell you times, splits, and positions, but it can’t tell you what the riders go through to get his or her result. While many racers receive factory support, a great deal of resources, and everything possible to help them achieve their best, the privateers of the sport pay their way to reach the racetrack and have a much bigger challenge ahead of them. The UK’s Taylor Vernon is one of those riders, coming to the races with his dad and pit legend, Jase Vernon, and sleeping at the track in their sprinter van. This weekend the Vernon duo grabbed a 19th place finish in the Elite Men’s race, turning many heads over at the factory teams while doing it.
New to the Canyon Collective team, Luca Shaw looked fast all weekend; appearing a switch-up was what he needed to get amongst it. Qualifying 10th, Luca pushed hard in finals, making up valuable seconds and grabbing a podium spot in 5th to begin his season with his new team.
Benoit Coulanges is a man on the rise and the newest name to join the top 5 on a regular base. Onboard the new Commencal DH bike, Coulanges was eager to please his home fans and grab his first win. Unfortunately, a minor mistake mid-way down put an end to that hope, but 4th place is no bad way to begin a season.
After qualifying first to the roar of the French crowd, his face and name plastered on signs up and down the hill, and the heavy number 1 plate afront his race bike, the pressure was on for Loic Bruni. Pushing hard to the howling noise of chainsaws and horns, Bruni did all he could but would lose out in the lower sections, finishing an impressive, albeit bittersweet, 3rd place.
Confident all week, winning timed training, finishing 2nd in qualifying, and scrubbing sections most didn’t dare, Finn Iles made it clear he was one to be reckoned with in 2022, finishing 2nd in Lourdes to a charging Amaury Pierron. Will he be the next rider to grab their first Elite World Cup win?
As those same fans wandered down the road, pits being taken down and fist bumps being shared amongst competitors and team staff, the season had officially begun, and what a start it was. Lourdes had delivered, and Fort William can’t come soon enough.
Photos by Sven Martin