Two elite sporting seasons began, 6,000 miles apart, on March 18. On different continents, two men prepared to defend their hard-won 2011 world titles. Both strapped on full-face helmets, climbed aboard cutting-edge carbon-fibre machines, and stared down the track with focused intensity. Both were champions at the very peak of their chosen sporting disciplines.
Months of off-season preparation were about to realise their purpose. In the millisecond it takes for a light to change from red to green, questions would be answered, speculation laid to rest, and the weight of pressure brought to bear.
In Australia, Sebastian Vettel flexed his right ankle to catapult his RB8 Formula One car off the line at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. In South Africa, Aaron Gwin pumped both legs to hurtle his Trek Session 9.9 mountain bike out the starter’s gate of the UCI Downhill World Cup race at the Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg.
Like Vettel, Aaron Gwin is his sport’s reigning king. Similarly fair-haired and blue-eyed, the American dominated downhill mountain biking last year with a supremacy seldom seen in the sport. Gwin came out of nowhere to blitz his peers by winning five of the seven World Cup races. Former champions in the field, such as South Africa’s Greg Minnaar, England’s Gee Atherton, and Australia’s Sam Hill, were humbled by the American’s record-breaking performance. Gwin’s focused fitness regime and motocross experience had led him to throw down a new marker for the sport.
At the opening round of the 2012 World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, the response of Gwin’s competitors to his resounding slap upside the head was eagerly awaited. Make no mistake; it was a hell of a slap. Gwin is a very quiet and humble individual, who places great importance in his faith and family, but there’s a steely glint to those blue eyes.
They don’t blink often.
Neither do Steve Peat’s. The lanky Englishman has seen it, and won it, all. He’s a downhill mountain biking legend, the archetypal Grizzled Vet – as grizzled a vet as a New Era cap-wearing downhiller can be. At 38, his best days may be behind him, but Peat can still turn it on. His second place last year at the World Cup round in Windham, New York, is evidence of that.
The race in Pietermaritzburg is a landmark for Peat: his 100th World Cup start. Through 19 impressive seasons, he has seen his sport change dramatically. Back when he started, bikes were still made of carbon-steel tubing with a few inches of front suspension and cantilever brakes. Since then, the R&D boffins have readily evolved Peat’s steed into a carbon-fibre-framed, hydraulic discbraked, dual-suspensioned wonder of a bicycle called the Santa Cruz V-10.
Reacting to innovation, therefore, is not new to Peat and his peers, but when the latest came in the flesh-and-blood form of Gwin and his winning methods, it sounded a wake-up call.
“Everybody has to look what Gwinny’s doing and re-evaluate their training,” says Peat, with a shrug. “You just have to lift your own game. People come in all the time and lift the skill and training boundaries. They lift the approach to testing and improve their equipment. He had a really good set-up on his bike last year, and people know what it is now. It should be a lot closer this year.”
With Peat as the Grizzled Vet, then the young Englishman Danny Hart, the last man to beat Gwin, is The Kid…
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