By Luke Webber in Schladming
Sam Blenkinsop made history by recording New Zealand's first ever World Cup victory, in Schladming, Austria, last weekend. After consistent results in the top ten throughout the year the Yeti Cycles rider clearly enjoyed the steep Schladming downhill track that rewarded a loose style of riding.
Blenkinsop qualified in the number one position but most expected the finals to be dominated by the race for the overall World Cup title, between Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) and Sam Hill (Monster Energy). Finishing fourth and sixth meant the pressure was on the final run and when Minnaar made it to the top of the hill, it was clear the strain was showing.
First down the hill was Minnaar and despite a small mistake in the top section he inherited the hotseat from Justin Leov. Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate), however, made sure that Minnaar's reign was short-lived and in theory could have ended his teammates hope of the overall win by bumping him down the rankings.
As it came to Hill's turn, it was obvious that the Australian phenomenon had saved everything in reserve for his final run. Up at the split and gaining constantly Hill then had a huge moment, the bike tankslapping across the infamous rutted Schaldming hillside only to miraculously save it and get back on track. This cost around a second but the quality of the run was enough to take the hot-seat and a real opportunity of rescuing the season with the overall title.
Hill's teammate Brendan Fairclough was the penultimate rider on course, posting the best split of the race but he crashed on the final drop onto the Schladming slopes. He scrambled back up and rescued his bike before rolling over the line just outside the top 20.
Finally, Blenkinsop took to the descent - everyone expected a solid top ten finish but this was the Kiwi's kind of course, and he revelled in the wet. After several gasps from the crowd there was finally a shocked roar as he dropped into the arena clearly beating Hill's time despite a mistake en route.
This result handed the overall World Cup title to Minnaar, an accolade he did not expect but one which was accepted very happily as the whole Santa Cruz Syndicate celebrated on the podium.
Atherton completes sweep
In the women's downhill race, World Champion Rachel Atherton (Animal Comencal) proved she was not only fast enough to blow away the competition, but could do so with consistency - much to the annoyance of her rivals. Producing a run reminiscent of her scintillating performance at the World Championships, Atherton managed to record another first today; her biggest ever winning margin in a senior event. But even with such domination, the young Brit still looks to improve to the next level in 2009.
"So far this year I've not made the qualifying mark for the men's race, which I'm pretty disappointed about. This is definitely the mark I'll set for 2009," said Atheron.
Setting standards against the opposite sex is not something alien for Atherton though, as she trains with her two brothers Dan and Gee constantly, gauging her progress against theirs and not other female riders.
Her series rivals Tracy Moseley (Kona) and Sabrina Jonnier (Team Maxxis) finished third and fourth respectively but with more rain hitting the course come early afternoon some expected a very different final. Frenchwoman Floriane Pugin (Playbiker - Iron Horse) surprised some by taking second for the day.