Downhill racing has never been more exciting. The unfortunate injuries incurred by a few top names at the end didn’t detract from the caliber of efforts, and if anything, it made quite a few guys try harder to make up some lost ground. I think the sport is perhaps on its way to a new zenith. With bike technology rapidly evolving, the athletes raising the standard of athleticism and skill, amazing media coverage, we are right on our way to a second coming of “The Big Show,” full of unmeasurable enthusiasm.
Steve Smith. What else needs to be said? With an outstanding end to the season, the Canadian Chainsaw Massacre showed us all that his chain was as sharp as ever. From humble beginnings, once an underdog, a young gun exploding with potential, race fans have waited to see what lay dormant under than grin and facial hair. As the seasons progressed, the power unleashed from the British Columbia native spawned speculation about potential. Could he reel in the wild riding? Was he all flash and no bang? With results building steadily, and medaling at Worlds in 2010, the collective held its breath. What was going to happen next? After some close moments and many a valiant effort, doubters were silenced in Hafjell in 2012 when he won his first World Cup downhill race. Enter 2013 and the beast was unleashed: He is now a top tier competitor who has pointedly cemented his place in downhill by winning 3 consecutive World Cup rounds this season, and becoming the most recent winner of the Elite Men’s World Cup overall title.
This maturation process we witnessed has been nothing short of exemplary. Backed by big industry leaders like Red Bull, SRAM and Devinci, he was given the tools he needed to craft the dream in his mind – a dream echoed in The Collective’s film, “Seasons.” Steve Smith still has that same affable demeanor, but he is no longer that wild teen kid on a bike. He made a five-year plan, and executed it with perfection. His dedication and maturity is both admirable and inspiring. It is a stark contrast compared to a lot of other riders who seem to flying by the seat of their pants, or say, Aaron Gwin, who has said many times over in interviews that he is in it just for fun. While he trains, diets, and rides to prepare, Smith and Gwin’s fires have different fuel sources and it’s not hard to miss. Gwin is all about the grin, the good times – he is super laid back, typical “Cali” attitude. Smith on the other hand is intense to the core, he has dedicated his whole life to gaining his success. He laughs and jokes too, but keep in mind people think of Chainsaws with they think of Smith. To each their own at the end of the day, it is just remarkable how such different approaches to the same task at hand can have similar outcomes.
While Steve’s success is unique, this coming-of-age process is something that can be seen all throughout the ranks of WC racing. The Junior Men’s title was hotly contested all season long, and the Top 20 Elite Men’s was an all-out battle. What we are seeing is a paradigm shift, that tipping point, where all of this latent talent, having been fostered for many years in these young riders, is finally finding form.
Loic Bruni, Josh Bryceland, Neko Mulally – these guys are on that cusp of adulthood, the spread between them only being five years. Mental and physical maturity is shining through with smart riding, smart training, and getting down to business. “The Naturals” have been nurtured, the results show this clearly. Loic just got 2nd in one of the hottest final races of the past five seasons; Josh is showing great form; Neko is making massive steps towards the top; the progression is no longer years in the making, it is nearly race-to-race. The hype is real and 2014 is going to be madness. With a talent pool so vast, so deep, beyond the four names above, the downhill race circuit is going to short-circuit.
With the World Cup race season excitedly wrapped up, it is safe to say that riders upped the ante like never before – 2013 was a raucous affair. Competitors have retreated to the far corners of the globe to refresh, recalculate, and prepare again for this year’s battle. What the winter months have procured remain to be seen. Riders Instagram, facebook, and tweet about their training, while still keeping their cards close. After many glimpses of brilliance from up-and-comers, and some struggles from the veterans, we can be sure efforts have been re-doubled and scrutinized finely. There were many questions raised throughout 2013 regarding wheel size, frame construction, riders’ abilities, and the powers at the controls – no sound answers have been reached, even now six months later. With the end of the off-season already upon us, the excitement for the future continues to build. I have been missing the racing dearly, and I look forward to seeing who will surprise us with their riding, and which companies will showcase ground breaking technology and help revolutionize the sport.