23 year-old Matti Lehikoinen (Team G Cross Honda) won his second World Cup race of his career, in the rainy town of Champéry. The small ski resort was hosting the World Cup circuit for the first time, and the organisers presented the top riders in the world with the most extreme downhill course the series has ever ridden. With a steepness that made walking the course a dangerous affair, the daily afternoon thunder showers also made for one of the toughest races in recent history.
The afternoon showers poured into the venue regularly around four o'clock every day, making the course slippery and difficult. Lehikoinen's teammate Greg Minaar felt victim to the course, and he wasn't even riding. He was walking the course after training on Friday and fell down a steep section of track dislocating his left shoulder. Minaar managed after two attempts to get his shoulder back into place himself, but was forced to miss Saturday training as the swelling in his shoulder subsided.
Lehikoinen, fortunately, had trouble-free training sessions despite a few departures from the course, and elected to run Crank Brothers 5050 flat pedals for the tight and twisty track that had very little pedalling.
In the semi finals, team management directed Lehikoinen to stop on course and run a slower time with the aim of starting earlier in the day, around 4pm. Lehikoinen rode to plan and finished mid field exactly, position 40.
The finals started and other top riders came down in the dry, including Steve Peat (GBR) who quickly took the hotseat and prayed for rain. But his stay in the hotseat was no more than 20 minutes as Lehikoinen hit the course just as the rain started. The bottom section of the track was getting slick, but not enough to stop the charging Finn who bumped Peat from the hotseat and settled in for the rest of the race. It wasn't long before the rain started to pour down turning the race into a survival course and the crashing began in earnest. Minnar, for example, crashed twice in the slippery conditions during his run, losing more than 20 seconds in one fall as his bike got entangled in the safety fencing.
In fact, all top riders crashed in the drenching conditions. The sheer steepness of the track, and the rain, made the course nearly unrideable in sections. The last rider to come done was Australian World Champion Sam Hill (Iron Horse/Monster Energy) and despite his incredible qualifying time, no-one expected him to beat Lehikoinen as the conditions were so extreme. Amazingly, he came within 1.63 seconds of taking the win and showed why he is World Champion.
The course was so steep and so treacherous that the only way to get injured riders off the mountain was to pluck them off the mountain with a helicopter, which was fondly called "Carcass 'Copter" and "Yard Sale Collector." The sounds of the beating helicopter blades were heard repeatedly though the day plucking up course casualties.
"I'm so happy for the team that we came out on top today," said Lehikoinen after his win. "This is such a crazy course and the weather was so tough to pick, but the tactics worked well. I knew that if I could get down the hill in the dry, I could run a fast time, and my race time is still the second fastest of the whole week here, so I'm happy about that. Sam's run was amazing and I thought he was going to get me until the last corner. To be sitting third overall now is a great feeling going to Mont-Sainte-Anne, a course I really love."
Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate) came in second ahead of Hill.
Fabien Barrel (Kona Les Gets) put in a notable performance. "It was going to be a challenging race with the pressure of being close to home and the engagement required to succeed. After eight months off the bike and 11 months without riding a World cup race, I finally get back on a podium in a nice 4th place."
Many of the downhillers will head to Scotland this weekend to race at Fort William then on to Mont Saint Anne for the next World Cup.
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.