Underdogging It

The Underdog; the crowd favorite; the people’s champion.  We all look to The Underdog as a testament of hard work, deserving talent, and latent potential just waiting to burst into a wildfire of success.  Downhill racing has alway had a handful of riders with the editorialized title of Underdog, and once this given title is assumed, all hell breaks loose.  With the surge of support and the energy of a crowd screaming for a win, it is only a short time before The Underdogs become regular contenders.  In the past six years, we have seen a host of riders (male in the case of this piece) enter in as the Underdog and explode into race winners, and constant podium contenders.  
In my racing memory, there have been some particularly notable riders who came in hot on the radar, stayed the course, and hit the mark with authority when the time came.  The first rider of the crop I have in mind is Sam Blenkinsop.  The New Zealand native is known for his style, bike control, and affable demeanor.  When he got picked up by Yeti, we as a collective audience zeroed in on Blenki and watched with baited breath, just waiting for him to piece it all together.  Then, in 2008, on a wet and wild Schladming track, a stellar textbook run rocketed the young gloveless wonder into the limelight when he stomped out a win over expected winner (and 2nd place finisher) Sam Hill.  Fanboys all around the globe went nuts, Bleki flashed the stink eye, and that was that – a new name was added to the list of World Cup winners, and was simultaneously struck from the list of Underdogs.
In 2012, it was an all-out battle of The Underdogs.  Gwin was on fire, the bar had been raised, and the young guns looking to prove themselves had put in the work over the winter.  The results sheets saw Top Ten names creeping up to Top Five consistently, and suddenly, what looked like a runaway season for the American came to a halt when Brook MacDonald handedly won round 6 in Val d’Isere.  The excitement felt by everyone who follows the WC season was palpable in all mediums from print to online – the bike-o-sphere went berserk.  Bulldog, on flat pedals, charged his way with pure grit to the top box and gave everyone cause to hoot and holler.  The quiet powerhouse proved not only that the  young crop of riders were ready to play with the top guys, but that flat pedals were still relevant and capable.
A month and change after the Kiwi breathed some fresh air into the race scene, the whole circus moved way, way North to Hafjell, Norway.  But before a single pit tent went up, something quite important happened: Steve Smith swept Crankworx, earned the nickname of “The Canadian Chainsaw Massacre”, and found new form.  The internet was buzzing, the hype-machine was turning, and all eyes turned to the last major race of the year.  The new track was fast as hell and fun-as-can-be; Dirt TV was making us jealous one daily edit at a time.  Then on Sunday, something happened: Gwin was out, and there was a new #1 – the wild Canadian who had been wowing us all for years, put down a stormer of a run clean and clear, and came out on top.  I am pretty sure I heard a dull rumble in the air as all of Canada lost it (thankfully no riots happened).  A long awaited win was now in the history books, and another chair was added to the hall of World Cup winners.  
Even after moving two of the crowd favorites off the list in 2012, there are still plenty of heads to cheer on in the Underdog category.  Josh ‘Maimi Bryce’/’Ratboy’ Bryceland is knocking at the door each race, and it is only a matter of time at this point before the most unintelligible WC rider has to give a winning interview.  Brendan ‘Brendawg’ Faircloth is due up as well.  He has been whipping, gapping, and hooning his way into our hearts for years, and we can all feel his desire to reach the top step – never count out the man with the meanest knacks in the biz.  
2013 was a tremendous year of racing, with spirited racing, gritty performances, nail-biting runs, and another Underdog-come-Contender in the form of Remi Thirion.  The Juniors were breeding more Dark Horses for the mid-ranks of the Elites, and because of that, the bookies are busier that ever taking bets for who the next breakthrough rider will be for 2014.  Will the new crop of race winners back their performances of the past?  Will the other podium contenders make it to the top step finally?  Will a seasoned veteran make a come-back?  The season is just ahead of us with only a few weeks until Round 1, and I for one, am thoroughly fired up to finally hear the starting beeps count down, letting us all know it’s go-time once again.

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