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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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British Downhiller Danny Hart (Giant Factory Off-Road Team)
Young British downhiller surprised himself with top tens last season
Making the transition from the junior to the elite ranks is never easy and for many young riders, expectations are kept modest. Yet, every once in a while, a rider like Danny Hart comes along and jumps straight into the top 10 of the World Cup in his first year as a senior.
Hart, who has just begun his second season with the Giant Factory Racing Team, finished eighth overall in the 2010 downhill World Cup.
"I'll be perfectly honest, I wasn't expecting to do that well in my first year after moving up from the juniors," said Hart to Cyclingnews at a recent team camp in Santa Barbara, California. "I was thinking top 40 or top 30, but I was in top 20 often, then top 10. I was in the top 10 at the Worlds. It was all on big tracks, too."
The British rider started his first year as an elite off on a positive note, but he wasn't taking anything for granted. "I could imagine people after the first race saying oh, yeah, it's just one race, but I was 20th in the first World Cup and then it just got better from there."
Hart credits his Giant team and the tutelage of Oscar Saiz for his success. "Oscar pointed me in the right direction and helped me get some structure. I had missed that for my first few years of racing."
"When I was on a European team - a French-speaking team - they did a lot for me, but it's so much better to be on an English-speaking team. Everything is so much better, so much easier." Hart made the move to Giant in 2010 from the Lapierre team.
Hart, who turns 20 this year, shows maturity when asked about his last season - he is not taking his success for granted.
"It was a consistent season. I butchered one qualifying, but you can't dwell on that. You just have to keep moving on. I think being consistent over six or seven races is better than being really good at one of them. But, then if I could put one run together for world champs, that'd be good too."
"Coming off last season and having a good, solid season, it's hard to say 'oh I want to do this or that'. I would like to get on the World Cup podium, and I think it's possible. I know I can do it. I want to keep being in the top 10 and getting higher and higher."
He has gotten the 2011 season off to a good start with a win at the Maxxis Cup in Portugal. It was an important milestone for the youngster.
"When I first started racing in Europe, I went to that race. I was there first as a cadet, and I've done it for quite a few years now. I always wanted to win it. This year I had a great week leading up to it, and I wanted to win it."
Hart spent nearly all of the winter at home in Redcar in the United Kingdom. He's doing similar training to last year, but with a slightly different foucs.
"I'm working on getting bigger. It's good motivation to see yourself getting bigger - you keep doing it. I'm doing a lot of weight training and working hard in the gym." Hart is hoping to bulk up. It will make him physically stronger on the demanding tracks and the extra mass will help him carry momentum downhills.
"I do two different gym sessions, one with plyometrics with jumps and squats for more power, and another is just lifting as much weight as I can."
"I'm also doing these three-minute intervals which are just killing me. That's for the fitness for the early races."
What comes early in 2011 is the Sea Otter Classic in mid-April and the first World Cup in Pietermartizburg, South Africa. Both events are known for their very physically-demanding tracks, in the sense that a lot of pedalling is required. This tracks that emphasize mad technical skills come later in the year.
All about the World Cup and Worlds
With no Olympic Games in downhilling, the World Cups and the world championships are the most important events.
Upcoming downhillers like Hart measure their progress regularly by pitting themselves at the world's best all season long at the World Cups.
"South Africa is sticking out in my mind as I've been focusing on it for three months now," said Hart, " but I liked La Bresse and we're going back there. It'll also be good to race at Fort William on my home track."
"Getting to Champery is a goal," said Hart of the world championships, which will be run in September in Switzerland. "I like it there and qualified seventh there last year, so I know I can do it. I have the confidence for it. It's in Europe and it's not far from home."
The venue is notorious for its technical difficulty, especially when wet. "I went to Champery for the first time last season and needless to say, I was a intimidated based on what I'd heard. In my first practice run, I could see it was steep and technical."
However, his experience was a good one. "I really enjoyed it. It's interesting and I'm looking forward to it again. It's good to have a season with different kinds of tracks in it."
Of course, getting to Worlds isn't easy when you're a British downhiller.
"Making the Worlds team though for Great Britain is quite a task. There's a lot of competition. The Worlds team is picked off World Cups and the national championships."
"There are probably 10 British guys who could win Worlds. Last year, at Mont-Sainte-Anne, we had five riders in the top 10. And they can only send six of us. That puts it in perspective." Some of Hart's competition includes former elite world champions Steve Peat and Gee Atherton and Marc Beaumont and Josh Bryceland.
When asked what makes British downhillers so fast, Hart said, "It's a small country and we haven't got any mountains. I think we have two tracks that have lift service, so everyone just has to push it. Everyone is tight and people are crazy for downhill. The national series is filled with talent. I don't know why, but everyone is so keen on the racing."
"It's always wet so all the tracks are pretty rooty and wet and we get used to it. It's almost second nature to us to ride that stuff."
Look out for Hart at the World Cups and the world championships. He'll also be racing Crankworx in Whistler and some US Pro GRTs.
"I thought about racing the US Open, but it's a week before Fort William, which is my priority as it's my home World Cup track."