The American national champion has a successful history at this venue and is in the right space heading into the final with the two Santa Cruz riders breathing down his neck.
“It feels good to be top but that run didn’t feel good,” Gwin mentioned. “There is always a burn but it was a smooth run with a couple of bobbles that I know I can clean up so I’m just trying to keep the train rolling here.”
Having just come out of a long winter in the northern hemisphere Gwin is having to budget his time and energy in the opening event of the 2014 World Cup and giving himself a chance in the final on Saturday is the most important element on such a physically demanding course.
“I’m feeling good and the bike is awesome this week so I am very happy.
“I think that it’s all about trying to save your legs for this one and throw it down when it counts. We have been putting in the work and so if I can put in the run that I know I can I think I will be really happy,” the 26 year old explained.
Defending men’s downhill World Champion Greg Minnaar came through the timed runs on Thursday as the fastest but was outgunned by the American and his teammate Bryceland but the South African is feeling strong and is happy with how he went.
“My plan was to come here and be as competitive as possible and that’s the way I came into it and it’s been a good start to the season but Saturday is going to be a different race but so far I am pretty happy with how it has started.”
Minnaar, who is on the mend from a serious knee surgery, is still in the mix on his home track with the third fastest time and with the hometown support it is never a safe bet to write Minnaar off even without a full offseason.
“I’m just racing, I’m not really worrying about the injury. I have taken all the precautions that I can and now I’m just struggling with time on the bike, I haven’t had as much time on the bike as everyone else and up top I am a bit slow but I have got fitness and determination so that will get me down!
“You say you not going to put pressure on yourself coming into the event but you want to race and win so you have to forget about everything and just focus on that race,” a focused but tired Minnaar added after qualifying.
Hutchinson UR hero Mick Hannah ended well off the pace after he suffered a mechanical at the top of the course and had to settle for a more relaxed run down the course as he automatically qualifies for the final due to his UCI ranking.
“In the top section I must have clipped a rock or something and had no rear brake going into one of the scarier little turns so I just hung on to it and got myself to a stop and then just cruised down slow and tried to stay out of the way of people.”
“It’s just a mechanical so there weren’t any mind games or anything and I have been doing my own times so I know how quick I am so it’s a good thing that nobody knows the times we can do!” he mentioned light-heartedly.
Another Pietermaritzburg resident excelled in the men's qualifying with Tiaan Odendaal of Green Team coming in as the second fastest South African and 34th overall ahead of the final on Saturday.
Women’s Downhill World Champion Rachel Atherton of the GT Factory Racing team was on a drip 24 hours prior to her getting onto the track for the women’s qualifying and still managed to come in second place behind fellow Brit and Madison Saracen Factory Racing rider Manon Carpenter with Emmeline Ragot claiming the third spot.
“We flew into South Africa a week today, giving ourselves enough time to recover, and I guess I just picked something up on the plane,” Atherton said. “I just got steadily sicker as the days went on and over the last couple of days I have been really feverish and pretty sick so the doctor put me on penicillin and antibiotics trying to get me right for tomorrow’s race.
Having missed the practice session yesterday the question of whether the World Champion was going to be able to compete in the first World Cup and now that she has been able to finish a run she is just trying to keep herself in the points and doesn’t expect too much from the event.
“I feel a lot better than I did but one days practicing isn’t great for the World Cup but as long as I can get out there and try and ride down it is going to be a saving points race for me because I’m not feeling good for a win.
“It’s the start of the season and to have this in the first race is pretty devastating but it is going to be a pretty good challenge!” she added determinedly.
The pace-setter, Carpenter, had to battle the heat and a tricky course in her run but managed to get down unscathed and claim the rite to the final rider out of the gate in the final on Saturday.
“I had a tough start at the top and worked hard across the middle even though I didn’t want to kill myself too much because of tomorrow but it was alright – pretty dusty though!
“It’s hard to know about your time until you look at the splits because you don’t know who has put the effort in in the middle but I’m very happy with my run and I can get it back tomorrow, hopefully,” a tired but satisfied Carpenter mentioned.
The junior men’s downhill qualifiers was marred by the withdrawal of the second ranked and MS Mondraker Team rider Innes Graham during the practice session on Thursday but otherwise the junior qualifying went according to the script with the top riders qualifying for Saturday’s final as Luca Shaw from SRAM/TLD Racing ended in the fastest time of 4:19.081 and was five seconds faster than Lapierre Gravity Republic team.
The South African contingent did not fare as well with hometown hopeful Gregg Brown crashing out in practiceon Thursday and was unable to take part in the qualifying. Jonathan Philogene was the top South African heading into the event ranked at fourth but battled his way through the second half of the course to end in 13th place overall.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – UCI MTB WORLD CUP PIETERMARITZBURG, PRESENTED BY SHIMANO
DOWNHILL QUALIFYING RUNS
1.Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing DH) 4:05.298
2.Josh Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) 4:07.836
3.Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) 4:07.919
4.Loic Bruni (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:08.967
5.Samuel Blenkinsop (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:09.132
6.Troy Brosnan (Specialized Racing DH) 4:09.402
7.Neko Mulally (Trek World Racing) 4:09.478
8.Nick Beer (Devinci Global Racing) 4:10.177
9.Sam Hill (Chain Reaction Cycles.com/Nukeproof) 4:12.025
10.Sam Dale (Madison Saracen Factory Team) 4:12.085
1.Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen Factory Team) 4:39.182
2.Rachel Atherton (GT Factory Racing) 4:48.325
3.Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:48.670
4.Jill Kintner 4:50.405
5.Tracey Hannah (Hutchinson UR) 4:56.374
1.Luca Shaw (Sram/TLD Racing) 4:19.081
2.Loris Vergier (Lapierre Gravity Republic) 4:24.705
3.Taylor Vernon (GT Factory Racing) 4:33.318
More information can be found at www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za
Image credit: Darren Goddard/Gameplan Media