By Luke Webber in Maribor, Slovenia
There were no surprises in the downhill finals at the 2008 World Cup, as dream team Sam Hill and Sabrina Jonnier opened the Monster Energy / Iron Horse account in the same fashion they ended 2007 with two wins. The world champion pair took their wins in a very different ways.
For Hill it was nothing short of total domination when it mattered most. In training and then qualification the Aussie tried to play his cards close to his chest setting steady, if not unimpressive times. "I was pretty upset with how I rode in qualifying," said Hill. "I felt tight and rode on the brakes too much."
On a dry and dusty descent that weaved in and out of the woods through fast turns and a crowd's favourite rock garden there could be no tactics. The fastest rider would win. Hill was that man and just as he did last week in the World Championship test event, he beat a host of top names by an embarrassing margin three seconds to Julien Cammelini (Chain Reaction Cycles/Intense) and four seconds to Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate).
In the race run, it was the rock garden at half-way that provided the most obvious place to spot differences in speed. Unfortunately this section also claimed its fair share of victims including Sam Blenkinsop (Yeti Fox Shox) and most spectacularly Josh Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) in an over the bars summersault crash from the bottom drop off.
The first rider to look truly fast through here was Greg Minnaar with a bruising run through the bumps. Although Peat looked well in control, too, his exit onto the fireroad was sluggish, surely costing him a vital second or so. In contrast, Hill mixed both skill and speed, careering through the rocks and showing superb fitness, sprinting the fireroad exit and gaining vital speed.
"I knew I had a lot more in me after the qualifier, at least a few seconds," said eventual fifth place Minnaar, who was denied a trip to the podium after the UCI called only three finishers for the podium instead of the customary five places.
"I think I tried too hard at the top of the woods and overshot a few corners and didn't have much flow up top. Exiting the woods I didn't carry as much speed as I wanted through the middle and at the bottom I tried to make up time," said Minnaar. "The middle worked well, but the bottom I tried too hard and lost time. I'm happy with my result, but not with my race run."
"The track got a lot drier and I made some mistakes on the top," said third place finisher Peat, "then [I] settled into my run and picked up my pace, but it wasn't enough."
"In the final I just wanted to have fun and ride like I know I can. My run went pretty well," said winner Hill, "but I definitely want to improve on putting together a better run in Andorra (Round two of the World Cup). I'm looking forward to the rest of the season and hopefully I can get a few more wins."
For Hill's team-mate Jonnier however, the victory was much narrower. Just eighteen hundredths of a second separated her and hot favourite Rachel Atherton (Animal Commencal), who won the semi-finals by a massive five seconds.
After the race, Atherton was clearly unhappy that the result did not reflect the effort invested over the weekend and winter, citing a number of errors in key sections of the race. Even so, these two riders distanced themselves considerably from the chasers Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center) who took the final podium placing was seven seconds adrift of the leading two ladies.
The next round of the World Cup, featuring both gravity and cross country events, will take place in Vallnord, Andorra on May 30-June 1.
See the full Downhill World Cup race coverage.