Rollercoaster Ride: World Cup Rounds 3 & 4 from Portugal

Rollercoaster Ride: World Cup Rounds 3 & 4 from Portugal
We were just getting warmed up, and then just like that, it was gone. No sooner had the 2020 Downhill World Cup season started, before it was suddenly all over. Four rounds at two different venues, an action-packed couple of weeks that tested riders' minds, bodies, souls… and bikes. 2020 will always go down in the history books as the year that the world was turned on its head. It is still quite hard to believe that we are in the grip of a global pandemic that has effected everything. It is a year like no other.

So it was fitting that amongst all this chaos that we had the slightly surreal experience of watching the world’s best downhillers (minus a few from Australia, New Zealand, etc.) racing against each other, almost as if nothing strange was happening at all. Of course there were regular Covid tests, social distancing, bubbles, no crowds, but (if you could forget about all of that) as a spectator watching it from a laptop it was almost as if everything was normal. The 2020 Downhill World Cup series was a welcome distraction for all of us.

But let’s rewind a little. After the mud-fest that was the World Championships in Leogang, and round 1 and 2 of the World Cup from Maribor, racers in Portugal were finally greeted with a dry track and (for the most part) good weather. Just as in Slovenia, Lousa would be a double-header – with Round 3 taking place on Friday (October 30th) and Round 4 on Sunday (November 1st) on slightly different tracks. Both tracks were universally loved by the riders, they had a real mix of features and terrain (especially in the upper and middle sections), with plenty of line choices, and of course as the week went on it became cut-up and deeply rutted, further adding to the challenge.

After the steep and tech riders then hit a long flat pedaling section towards the bottom, which would lead them to the finish arena… and what a finish arena it was. The ‘fading launcher’ was the stuff of legends. More of that please. We should also mention that with the low autumn/winter sun and the orientation of the hill a lot of the course was in shade for the race. This meant that any morning dew would linger for quite some time, leaving the track greasy in places.

After solid qualifying runs for round 3 things were looking good for the INTENSE Factory Racing team of Aaron Gwin, Neko Mulally and Seth Sherlock. In juniors Seth came in a respectable 8th, “I had a decent smooth run but I played it safe and didn't push very hard. It's a step in the right direction though.” Neko too had a good run finishing in 30th, but knowing that he had “more in the tank”. After a qualifying run that saw him lose time in the long pedaling section you just felt that Aaron definitely had “more in the tank”, and so it was to be. Coming down as the 19th place qualifier he was looking really good out on the track. There was a fire and aggression to him that he hadn’t been able to fully release in the muddier races back in central Europe. He went into the hot seat, where he sat for some time.

As riders came down his 4:58.301 (almost six seconds quicker than his qualifying run) was beginning to look really good. In fact it was only when Loic Bruni crossed the line with four more riders to go that Aaron was bumped off the top spot. He’d eventually finish in fourth, just over three seconds off the win. “More progress! Felt good to spend some time on the hot seat today and get back on that podium.” This was a much needed boost for both Aaron and the team, the track suited him and all was looking good for the next round… which of course was less than 24 hours away.

The final round of the World Cup is different because riders do not score points for qualifying, but if you are not a protected rider then you still need to qualify, and your qualifying time will also dictate your starting position, which is all-important for the Red Bull live-feed coverage. And with so little time for racers to get used to ‘track 2’ qualifying was also a good opportunity to really go for it and let it all hang lose, with little pressure on the actual result. Again the team all qualified safely, Aaron in 7th, Neko in 28th and Seth in 5th. Interestingly lots of riders were coming down with flat tires, and both Aaron and Seth suffered tire pressure loss in qualifying.

As race day came around it was a mixed one for the team. Seth pulled off his best result of the season with a 7th place (12th overall), but there was real disappointment for Neko. Looking back at the results sheets you can see that he was fastest at split 1, and second fastest at split 2… which is amazing, but unfortunately he tagged a tree which was enough to slow him and drop him down the results sheet. Annoying, but also hugely positive for Neko going into the off-season. He finished in 29th in the final standings.

Things got a little ‘interesting’ as the top 20 riders started coming down when the heavens opened. Rain and mist was not what we were expecting. It’s a shame because it messed the race up for a lot of riders, especially in zone 2 just near to the start – a tricky combination of turns that now had little traction. Aaron was close, but it was obvious that the slippery conditions were not helping. To make matters worse a stalled and overcooked slow right hander put him out of contention. He finished back in 44th, leaving him in 8th position in the overall.

“Man, racing can be a tricky thing some days. I felt I had the speed to win today even with the rain, I just didn’t get it done. Lots of mistakes at the top trying to find traction. Kept charging and think I was maybe pulling back some time until I made the big mistake. Frustrated, disappointed, all those other words. Lots of positives to take away from the week, but I wish we had more races. Gonna feel like a long off-season now but looking forward to next year. We’ll be ready.” Aaron

As the rain eased off we were then treated to one of the most exciting conclusions to any World Cup season. Even though it was a weird and shortened series it still mattered. We are of course slightly partisan with the IFR team, but we couldn’t help but be blown away by the show put on by Loic Bruni, Greg Minnaar and Matt Walker. Go and watch the reply, it was downhill racing at its best, edge of your seat stuff, and that is why we love the sport so much.

So that is it, the 2020 Downhill World Cup season is over. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the race organizers and venues for making this season happen under such difficult circumstances. We have no idea what the rest of 2020 and 2021 will bring us, but as it stands now World Cup racing will return in almost six months time back to Maribor, Slovenia (April 24-25), and we can’t wait.

Want to be the next Gwin? Check out the 2021 M29 frameset here.

On a budget? Check out the 2020 M29 now on sale!

Photos: Nathan Hughes