The legendary Swiss MTB venue delivered what surely had to be one of the best mountain bike racing weekends ever. There was breathtaking results across the board that saw Rachel Atherton return to downhill World Cup racing with an unsurprising yet also unexpected win. Fellow British rider Jordan Williamson delivering another incredible result, taking the win in his first-ever men's Elite World Cup downhill mountain bike race. In the Olympic cross country reigning World Champion Nino Shurter would take a record-breaking 34th World Cup victory, with European Champion Loana Lecomte winning the women's XC in a similarly emphatic style. As the dust settles and before it all happens next weekend in Leogang, here are all the details of a breathtaking weekend in Switzerland.
Rachel Atherton has hinted at a World Championship return at Fort William and it was no surprise to see her throw her hat in for the opening World Cup round in Lenzerheide. The six-time World Champion and six-time World Cup overall champion has done it all, but effectively been away from racing since snapping her Achilles in 2019. She has also become a mother in the time, and her daughter Arna had also made the journey to see Mum racing.
The downhill format has changed for this season with a qualifying run followed by a semi-final with only the top riders making it to the final. It means riders have new demands put on them for the whole weekend, and it would be Atherton who adapted best to the new format, qualifying in second place in the qualifying run and the semi-finals, just 1.6 seconds off home favourite and last year’s overall World Cup champion, Camille Balanche.
With only eleven finalists lining up for the final, Rachel's Atherton Continental teammates were confident she would be a danger – despite her protestations. Marine Cabirou would set the early pace before Syndicate Santa Cruz rider Nina Hoffman took the hot seat. Rachel would then deliver a composed and super-fast run to take the lead with only Balanche left. As the team held their breath, the experienced racer powered down the track. Two seconds off Rachel’s pace at split 2, Balanche gradually reeled back the difference, but it wasn’t enough and she crossed the line 0.5 seconds back on Atherton and the fairytale dream return had the ending that it deserved.
Atherton said, “I actually can’t believe it, coming into the race I genuinely had no idea if I would even qualify, the new format is so hard. It’s a whole different game riding a World Cup compared with riding at home at Dyfi Bike Park where I know the lines inside out. I have no plans for Leogang next weekend and I am exhausted. I have only trained for two months and everything hurts. I just want to get to World Champs in Fort William."
The Men's Downhill would have similar excitement across the qualifying rounds, semi-finals and finals events with Australian multiple World Downhill Champion, Sam Hill making headlines as he made his return to downhill MTB after a successful spell of enduro mountain bike racing. However, he would fail to qualify and miss out on the finals. Another big name missing was the reigning World Cup Champion Amaury Pierron who didn't start for the semi-final after a crash.
With just a couple of short hours to catch their breath after the semi-finals, thirty-one Elite men would take their chance of glory in the final, with Dakotah Norton having a lengthy stay in the hot seat until Troy Brosnan took over. Then it was time for the former Junior Downhill World Champion, British rider Jordan Williams to ride not only his first Elite DH but his first race for his new Specialized Gravity team. He would show no nerves as he took an incredible three seconds out of Brosnan's run. Fellow young gun and Red Bull Hardline winner Jackson Goldstone would be next, but he could only get within two seconds of Jordan's time. Goldstone's teammate at Santa Cruz Syndicate, Greg Minnaar, would puncture during his run and wouldn't challenge either.
With a host of big names to come including Williams' teammates Loic Bruni and Finn Iles, it looked as though the youngsters time would be threatened, Finn Iles came up short, with Benoit Coulanges and Laurie Greenland getting close to the time but failing to better it. With just three riders left the tension was high as first Vergier would just miss out, then Andreas Kolb, looking to make it an Atherton Continental DH double, failed to get near the leader's time, hitting the dirt early in his final run after brilliant qualifying and semi-final performances. Then it was only the World Champion Bruni who could stop Jordan Williams, and another unbelievable result. He would be green until the final split, losing time and would only finish third to Williams and Vergier.
Williams who looked shocked at his first Elite UCI World Cup win said, "This is just insane. Lenzerheide isn't one of my favourite tracks so I just rode as well as I could. I don't know where I found the speed. Certainly having fast riders in Juniors helped push me along before heading into Elite. I didn't focus on trying to win or sending it hard, I just tried to put down the best run I could and see where I ended up."
Men and Women XC Elite
On Sunday it was over to the cross-country mountain bike action with Round Two of the 2023 season, and a full day of exciting racing in Lenzerheide.
The Elite Women would see a riding masterclass in race management from Loana Lecomte, as she left plenty in the tank for a final lap burst to leave World Champion Pauline Ferrand Prevot trailing on the first climb of the final lap. Lecomte would build a lead around the rest of the lap with Ferrand Prevot falling back to fourth and being passed by Anne Terpstra and Alessandra Keller in the final lap. Anne Terpstra would attack Keller on the final bed and sprint to the line unchallenged for second place.
Lecomte added at the finish, "I don't know how I did it today. The last few weeks I have had a lot of questions, and it was hard for me. I just wanted to have fun on my bike, and I won the race, I can't believe it. My biggest goal of the year is the World Championships, so my training is geared towards that."
It was then the turn of the Elite Men and over to Nino Schurter to see if he could take his 34th World Cup win, he was motivated by the home crowd as he looked to break the record that he's been chasing since last year.
Schurter would start with a lower ranking for the race after crashing at Friday's short track but quickly moved through the field to join the leading riders at the front early on. On lap four, he would pull away along with Swiss rival Mathias Flückiger, and Flückiger would be unable to hang on to the rainbow jersey's pace for long, as it quickly became a solo exhibition at the front for Schurter, building his lead to around 30 seconds. Going into the final lap, he could take things easy as he soaked in the wild Swiss crowd's adulation as he smashed the record for his 34th win in XC racing.
South Africa’s Alan Hatherly would be the fastest of the chasing pack in a finish line sprint, 15 seconds behind Schurter in second with France’s Jordan Sarrou in third.
Speaking after the race Schurter said, "There's no better place to do this than here. It's taken me a long time to get to 34 wins. I was looking forward to this race, to race one last time in Lenzerheide. It was already emotional knowing that we might not race here again. I wanted to give it all and hopefully get the win here. The crowd was insane.”
The teams and riders will now make the trip to Leogang to get between the tape once again for another full weekend of downhill and xc racing as the 2023 season continues. Check out ucimtbworldseries.com for all the details and schedule.