The Lead-up to Lourdes: Andrew Neethling’s Pace Predictions Ahead of the World Cup Opener
The deck is stacked with wild cards on the precipice of the World Cup DH season opener next week in Lourdes—who better to guess where the chips will fall than a former World Cup racer
Accurately predicting who will be fast coming into the season is a little like predicting the stock market. There are winners and losers when it comes to trading stocks and shares, but wolves with a bit of insider knowledge can make some serious gains.
The markets consider a few factors when attempting to predict trends and I think we can look at these to help with predicting pace coming into the World Cup downhill season.
The World Cup series is starting unusually early in 2022. The only other time the racers have heard the beeps in March was back in 2012, and that round happened during summer in South Africa. This year we’re heading to Northern Hemisphere and Lourdes, France, which should provide an almost wintery challenge at this time of year. A good thing about starting the season earlier than usual is we can lean more heavily on the last race of the previous season for our predictions. One negative could well be that some of the star riders from 2021 may still need a bit of a rest and reset so they could struggle with coming into a season earlier than usual. We also have a shorter off-season so we therefore have less pre-season racing to gauge who is going quick.
Going into 2021, Loris Vergier showed a few cards early so if you were paying attention it was an easy bet that he would be quick. This year we have just two big pre-season races as I write this to go off, the Portugal Cup, which was cleanly swept by Commencal, and this past weekend’s Brioude DH Cup, which Vergier won for the men, and Camille Balanche took for the women by nearly a second.
Previous Track Record
Starting with a previous track record is a fair place to begin: Who performs well at the first race consistently? Winning the first race of the season certainly brings with it a ton of confidence to a rider, and can set the overall tone for the rest of the year. To determine this, I looked at the past six years of race openers dating back to 2016, leaving out 2017 since it was rain-affected. If this is our criteria, it’s clear that Troy Brosnan is the man to beat—he has one win, two top 5s and two top 10s in the five races I tracked.
“Compare this to Greg Minnaar,” might be a natural response to this. Minnaar, if you can believe it, has only one top 5 to his name dating back to 2016, and no other top 10s. Minnaar is not a fast starter lately. My own speculation is he builds and peaks later in the season. He takes a big break from downhill and riding in the off-season and this helps with his longevity and motivation, but may also hurt his early-season pace. He does not always race pre-season European races either. I do see him making an effort here and getting on the downhill bike more leading into the season. The youngsters are just so hungry and ride so much before the races. There is a saying that you can’t win the championship at the first race but you can lose it. Has this trend hurt Minnaar’s chances at the overall the past few seasons?
Now, let us throw some spice into the mix. Aaron Gwin has won three openers since 2016. Gwin won the last ‘fair’ race at Lourdes in 2016 and the previous year in 2015, also at Lourdes. He also won the season opener in 2014 (in Pietermaritzburg). I know I said I was only looking back to 2016, but I think Gwin deserves a special mention. Yes, it’s a long time ago but at least we can assume that his racing style suits the track and, when he is on form, he handles the first race pretty damn well. The other winners of the opening rounds in the past six years were Loris Vergier, Loic Bruni, and Amaury Pierron.
Looking at the past six years in the women’s field does not offer as much help. Vali Holl is coming into only her third year as an Elite. She is the 2021 reigning champion, and the only rider from last year’s top 5 overall that does not have a win at the opening round of the World Cup series previously. Myriam Nicole, Tahnée Seagrave, Marine Cabirou and newcomer Camille Balanche all have won the opening round of the World Cup series. Looking at just this trend, Lourdes is anyone’s race to win, but Balanche’s win at Brioude could give her an extra edge headed into the opener.
Momentum plays a big factor, as well. Specifically, the momentum of the tail end of the previous season and most notably the last race of 2021, which can carry a rider on a high into 2022. On the men’s side, Thibaut Dapréla had all the momentum until the very last race when he crashed and broke his fibula. This momentum has now swung to Loic Bruni, who found form late in the season, and that helps with this season fast approaching. Reece Wilson won the penultimate race of the 2021 season, and if it were not for a dropped chain in the final race, could have been the last two races of 2021. He is another man with momentum on his side. Momentum brings with it confidence. We all know confidence is huge.
Momentum unfortunately is not on Gwin’s side here and he may even agree. Does that light a fire for Gwin? We shall soon find out. Dapréla is also a question mark. He is so young and the setback at the end of last year may not even affect him. He does not seem to hold back, so he may very well come out charging. Myriam Nicole had all the momentum in the women’s field until the very last race, when Höll took the title in a late-season surge, which no doubt helped her build the confidence going into the offseason.
Minnaar, if you can believe it, has only one top 5 to his name dating back to 2016, and no other top 10s. Minnaar is not a fast starter lately. My own speculation is that he builds and peaks later in the season.
It is not insider trading if the information is public knowledge right? It also is not illegal in downhill if only you knew or the rider’s team knew, luckily.
Well, we know Troy Brosnan will miss the first round due to an injury so in my mind he will be on the back foot literally when round two rolls around. Who else is nursing an injury we don’t know about? A little birdie told me Minnaar had a tumble at team testing. How bad was that? Does that affect his mental or physical preparation? Marine Cabirou had a crash that resulted in broken vertebrae in late 2021. This will not help her confidence and preparation coming into an early 2022 season in the women’s field. Tahnee Seagrave nursed a neck issue all of last season. Is this behind her? Fitness is also a huge factor entering a season and could determine who may be fastest come round one in Lourdes.
Cards on the Table
“Today’s price is the best predictor of tomorrow’s price,” to continue my stock market analogy.
This is where your ‘safe’ money is and let me tell you, I might be more interested in predicting the stock market than downhill. There are a serious number of variables in our sport.
Today’s price is a healthy rider with momentum and a track record on his or her side. That would make you believe the win could come from Bruni, Vergier, Myriam Nicole or Amaury Pierron if you were forced to pick a handful of riders. The race is also in France, which helps these picks. Pierron just came off a win in a pre-season race in Portugal, which makes you want to believe he may just be the man to beat. But does that mean I am ruling out Reece Wilson, Gwin, Dapréla, or even Minnaar, who could read this and shut me up very quickly? We know Pierron and Dapréla ride at only one speed and that is 100 percent. With the season starting so early will the experienced riders hold back a bit knowing it’s far too early to peak in March?
Then, there are past World Cup winners who are hungry to get back into the winner’s circle, namely Danny Hart and Laurie Greenland, who is motivated to show his new team his signing was a good move. I would be a fool to rule them out. What about a newcomer to the Elite winner’s circle like Finn Iles, who just placed fourth in the pre-season Brioude Cup, .43 seconds off of Vergier?
Then there is Benoît Coulanges who was knocking on the door last season with a silver medal at World Championships as a highlight and two third-place finishes in the pre-season races in Europe. His pace is there!
If we use all these same metrics to try to evaluate pace in the women’s field then Myriam Nicole should be my top pick. Yes, Vali Höll won the series last year, but momentum is still on Myriam’s side as that crash she had was almost just bad luck. She also has a win at the pre-season race in Portugal. I would much rather bet on a past winner than a newcomer for the opening round in both the men’s and women’s race.
They say the market has a mind of its own and so does World Cup Downhill. With this race being so early I think we will know a lot more about how the year will turn out after round two later in the year. The pace the riders show at round 1 will not fully dictate their season.
The weather may well also be terrible or at least cold. The key factor to consider in this whole piece is that I may have written all this in vain as the weather could wreck all these predictions. Knowing World Cup Downhill racing and trying to race in Europe in March, it may well just be the case.