I’ve been keen for World Champs all year, as it was my only goal with DH racing for the season. All of the other DH races I did this year were just to get selected for the national team and get to Pietermaritzburg, while not risking hurting myself for the enduros in the process. There was certainly an added level of pressure for the race given that it was my only DH racing objective. But, since Enduro racing was the season’s focus, I also felt very relaxed going into and throughout the week.
The Bike - As most people reading this probably know, I decided to ride a bit of a different bike to 99% of other riders for this race. I decided to ride my stock SB66 Carbon instead of my DH bike. The bike set-up was essentially no different than the bike I’ve been on at all of the Enduro World Series races this year. The only real changes were a Fox Float 36 180mm fork up front, Shimano Saint brakes and crank, and a Shimano Ultegra 11-23 road cassette. I also took the dropper post off for this race, too. There were so many jumps on the pedaling section that there wasn’t any sustained pedaling before you hit another jump. And, in my opinion, you should be standing up giving it all you have, not sitting on your bum! But, at the end of the day, there were two main reasons for deciding to go with the SB66c. The first being that it has been the bike I’ve been on all year and it was the set-up I was used to and comfortable on. I knew there would be sections of the track where I would lose time on the smaller bike, but also sections where I would gain back time. The second reason is that the SB66 is such a capable bike. I knew it would be able to handle everything the track had to throw at it. With both those points in mind, I thought it was an obvious choice for me.
I arrived in Pietermaritzburg in the afternoon straight from the EWS in France last weekend and was feeling pretty tired. There wasn’t any practice for the Elites until Thursday, so I had a couple of days to do some spins, play with my SB66c (built specifically for this race) on the XC course and settle in.
Track Walk . The track was more or less the same as it was last year with only a few minor changes at the bottom and a whole lot more jumps on the pedaling section in the middle (to reduce the pedaling). I wasn’t sure how the track changes would fit the smaller bike, as I needed the pedaling to make the most of the smaller bike’s strengths. But, I would also carry better speed through the jumps and it would probably even out. The biggest difference was how dry it was! It was just deep powder from top to bottom; like riding mud without the moisture. Masters World Champs were run the previous week and the track was a lot rougher than usual. I knew the top section (with a lot of corners, some rock gardens and technical steep sections) would be tough to ride as fast I could on my DH bike, but the SB’s capabilities continually proved itself to me this year when things got hairy. Overall, the course is a very fun one to ride and most riders had a lot of positive rings to say about the course and the updates. It seems to be the people who have never seen the course who have the most negative things to say about it. In person, it was certainly far rougher and more of a “real DH track” than it looks from some helmet cam run that was put on the Internet. Throw in multiple 45-60ft jumps, and there was plenty to make it a worthy World Championship DH track.
First Practice. I got four runs in today. The first two runs were just to get a feel for the track, find a few lines and get them drilled into my head. Then we made a few small set-up changes to tire pressure and fork adjustments, and went up for two more runs to start picking up a little speed and get all the jumps done. The dry slippery track was definitely tough at first, but I started getting the feel for it all on my last two runs. I got used to the dirt and started feeling a lot better and was hitting all the jumps on my third run and was feeling pretty good about things after my fourth run. I achieved everything I wanted for the day and finished the day feeling happy!
Set-up changes – My bike needed some other changes that I just didn’t have time to do with the short practice time. My fork went off to Fox for them to work their magic, where they made some internal changes to give the fork better small bump sensitivity and then stiffen up in the last part of the travel. I also decided to go to full DH tires. They may be a bit slower rolling, but the lighter EXO sidewall tires were a bit too squirmy on the high-speed impacts and I couldn’t push hard enough in some key sections. One thing that blows my mind with a course like this is why everyone wants lightweight wheels. There’s no major accelerating on this track, which is the only situation where light wheels would be faster. This track is flowy and you carry consistent speed the whole way down, and rolling weight can be your friend. A heavier wheel that is up to speed will naturally want to stay in motion more than a lighter wheel, so it made perfect sense to go to a heavier more stable tire. I also kept with the ghetto tubeless set-up I’ve been using all year, and it worked without issue all week. It’s definitely harder to mount a stiff DH tire in this way, but super mechanic Polarbear Hughes had no major dramas getting it done for me. He didn’t even need tire levers; it must be his big polar bear paws!
Second Practice. They extended practice to four hours today, which was very welcome. My plan was to get in five runs, get up to speed, and make sure I had done all sections flat out. There was only one very short practice session planned after today, so it was vital to be at least 95% up to race speed by the end of the day to know what it was going to feel like come race day.
Junior Race Day
This was race day for juniors, and we had our two Yeti shredders ready to go with Richie Rude and Jay Fesperman. After silver at World Champs last year, Richie was now the hot favorite for the race. He’s a big strong lad who isn’t afraid to huck some gaps and get loose, pedal at everything flat out, and basically just dominate the track! He was ready and the track suited him well. Jay was also picking up speed each run and looking fast, and keen for his first World Champs experience as a first year junior rider. And, as it turned out, Richie’s day went absolutely perfect and he smashed the field! Almost 6-seconds faster than 2nd place for a very convincing win and the title of 2013 Junior DH World Champion! Needless to say, the Yeti pit was a happy pit on Friday afternoon! Jay also showed some great form with a 12th place and one of the fastest times for the first year juniors. He’ll no doubt be hungry for a medal next year!
Seeding Run. Well, they still call it seeding, but it doesn’t really make sense because they still run the same start order for the finals. But it’s a good opportunity to test your warm up and get in a solid full run to see how you stack up compared to others. The biggest news of the day was an overnight rain that had slicked up the track a little. Being in the first 1/3 of riders to start their run was a bit of a disadvantage as the track was definitely a bit slick for the early starters. I wasn’t worried, as it was Sunday that counts. In the end, I was happy coming in 7th fastest and only 4-seconds off the fastest time. I cruised the top section and was only about 90% on the pedaling, and my heart rate didn’t get within 20 beats of maximum heart rate during the run. I knew I had a lot more to give tomorrow and my confidence was high! We made a few more small tweaks on the bike; some more low-speed compression and an extra PSI in both tires (as they were still a bit squirmy on a couple very high speed G-outs). I got in a good 45 minute trainer spin to make sure any lactate was out of the legs, had a quick massage and did some stretching, and relaxed all afternoon with my feet up while trying not to think about race day tomorrow.
Race Day. I slept like a rock all night and woke up feeling fresh; a perfect start to the day! We had a 1.5-hour practice session and my plan was to be up top at 9am to be one of the first guys down the hill and try to squeeze in three runs. The track was drying out again and I wanted to make sure I was 100% certain where I could push hard and where things were getting a bit dusty and slippery again. I accomplished my goal and squeezed in three runs. My last run was perfect and I was as ready as I was going to be. I’m not going to lie – the next four hours of sitting and waiting for your start time sucks! You just want to get this thing done! I was feeling a bit nervous, but well under control. I knew I was definitely a lot calmer than a few other guys who were cruising around with a look of complete confusion on their faces. Body language says a lot, and something I definitely used to my advantage with 4Cross racing. Look confident, act confident, and be confident! 3:08pm was my start time and after what felt like an eternity it was almost time to go. My warm up went well, my body was ready, and my bike was ready. My actual race run was a bit of a blur. The track had deteriorated quite a bit from the morning’s practice and was very dry and loose again, just how I like it! I knew that you had to be fresh to make the most of the jumps and pedaling at the bottom, so I made sure that I stayed smooth and clean up top to preserve energy.
I took it easy on the pedaling and just pumped to maintain and gain speed on everything. When I got to the pedaling section my breathing rate was well under control and I still felt fresh and I got good backsides on the two main 60ft jumps. This was probably the most important part of the whole run; if you didn’t get good backsides and pump from the jumps, you lost a lot of speed and momentum into the pedaling. I got into a good rhythm by not going too hard early and sustained my power over the whole straight. At the end of the pedaling and jumps, I still had a lot left in the legs and lungs. You just get another gear come race run, and I felt like I may have not given enough. I also found I couldn’t pedal too hard. Pedaling any harder and I would’ve completely flat landed every jump on the straight. I was in a good position to finish strong.
I gave it all I had over the last minute, pedaling wherever I could and trying to stay off the brakes in all the high speed turns at the bottom. In the last 10 seconds, I knew I was on a good run. I just kept going with all I had and crossed the line over 12-seconds on the fastest time to that point. My time goal had been 4 minutes, and I just missed it by coming in at 4.01. I had set myself up for a long afternoon in the hot seat…just as I had planned!
For more than an hour all riders went slower. A few came close, but I was still in the lead. With only six riders to go and it was Mick Hannah who finally beat my time. I was kind of bummed, but Mick is super strong on this track and was one of the hot favorites. So, it was no surprise that he knocked me off the top spot. From then, I just hoped my time would hold for a medal, as this was my big goal for the season.
With only three riders left, Greg Minnaar was due in next and his first split was blazing fast. He lost some time in the middle, but went a full second faster than Mick Hannah in the last 40 seconds of the track to get into the lead by a mere .3 of a second, leaving me in 3rd.
So, with two riders to go, I was sitting in 3rd….c’mon!!! I just want a medal!! My goal at the World Cup here last year was top-5, and I got pushed back into 6th by 5 THOUSANDTHS of a second. I really didn’t want that to happen again. As luck would have it, Steve Smith pushed too hard and went down. That’s part of the nature of Worlds, everyone pushes harder than they normally ever would at a World Cup and a lot of guys crash. I was gutted for Steve; he deserved a good result and was riding the best he ever has, but it wasn’t his day.
Then there was just Gee Atherton left, his first split was faster than mine. But, he looked like he was laboring in the last minute of the course. As he came to the line and was outside my time, I knew I had secured 3rd place and was so happy! I couldn’t believe it, the day had worked out just like I’d hoped and I found myself with my first ever medal for Elite DH World Champs! Yewwwwwwww!
So that’s that. I’m all packed up and on my way home. World Champs was like the icing on the cake of an already great season. We still have one last EWS race to go, but I’m already excited for next year! Thanks for all the support this season from everyone. I’d especially like to thank my sponsors, there’s been a lot of people over a lot of years who have done a ton to get me to where I am right now!
Words: Jared Graves/Joey Schusler Photos: Yeti