The Red Bull Hardline downhill race is like no other in mountain biking, a season-ending send-fest that mixes the pressures of a timed run with some of the most treacherous technical sections – and biggest jumps – around.
We don’t just mean ‘season-ending’ in terms of its post-World Championships/World Cup position in the calendar, either. The Hardline course in Wales' Dyfi Valley has a reputation for breaking both bikes and riders, meaning it can often be a season-ender from an injury point of view, as well.
Some of the world’s best racers, such as ‘Greatest Of All Time’ Greg Minnaar turn up to the event and don’t even bother riding. Others, like three-time winner Bernard Kerr, can’t get enough of the craziness, and the whole Hardline vibe is basically one big end-of-term party.
The riders invited to Hardline (you can’t just rock up and have a go) are a broad mix of some of the world’s best racers and freeriders. As you’d expect, stories were unfolding right from the announcement of the list of riders.
New Zealand youngster Jess Blewitt was stepping up to the step ups as the first female rider to ever compete at Hardline. Gee Atherton was slated to return to the event, too, only a year after suffering horrific injuries while filming footage on a radical slate mine descent in what was nearly a fatal crash.
At the other end of the spectrum, a previous junior World DH Champion and long-time Whistler and Squamish ‘super grom’, 18-year-old Jackson Goldstone, was heading up a train of radical young riders.
The world’s hardest DH course?
Designed from the outset by ex 4X World Champion (and Gee’s brother) Dan Atherton to push riders and machines to the limit, the course’s layout meant the dig crew had literally ramped things up again for 2022.
Some parts of the course were largely unchanged, such as the deceptively simple upper turns, and the dark, permanently wet section of slate rock, roots and woods. The first launch 'Cannon Ramp' also remained more or less the same.
The parabolic steel mesh sender for the massive step up was a tighter curve than before, however, firing riders way into the Welsh sky. That meant the fastest racers would have to deliberately scrub speed not to overshoot the massive cliff drop immediately in front of them.
A section of typical Welsh rock and berm DH track led into a totally new section, as the Dyfi crew had built a vast slate version of a BMX/bike park-style on/off ramp-box-ramp sequence. This was upsized to ‘just about clearable’ if you sprinted flat out, and was the site of some very close incidents all week. Carrying speed here was also crucial, as casing the bigger-than-ever gap jumps was definitely not a good idea – in fact, riders were talking about how crucial it was to get gears pre-selected to make every meter count.
At 90 feet and 87 feet, respectively, the gaps were truly epic and left most riders hanging sky high above the stunning Welsh mountain scenery for what seemed a time-stopping age. Slamming back onto the slate run, it was straight into the next stack of turns and slick, boulder-infested drops that have been known to end many a promising run, but only saw one over-the-bars incident this year.
The gruesome geology led straight onto the twisted boardwalk of the infamous road gap. Casually agreed to be the easiest feature to ride, it's nonetheless so terrifying to look at – even on the TV – that it nearly made a long-time Red Bull commentary legend throw up when he tried to walk out along it. More dark wet rock and root singletrack, including an ugly crag-to-flat drop with a proven appetite for tired and battered Hardliners, led into the finishing field.
Here, the two last massive 70 foot-plus jumps were an option for riders who were just delighted to survive to pull a tired trick, or for racers who thought they were in with a shout of the podium to tuck and sprint through the inflatable Red Bull finish arch.
True to form, the course started claiming riders from the very start of practice. Course designer Dan Atherton knocked himself cold as the first rider to attempt the massive new doubles. Bernard Kerr detonated his front wheel so spectacularly that he became a viral sensation on the same landing, breaking his scaphoid (wrist) bone and finger in the process. After massively impressing through early training, Jess Blewitt fractured her collar bone again, reprising an injury from the Fort William DH, and joining Daryl Brown, George Brannigan, Phil Atwill and Kaos Seagrave on the broken riders bench.
Despite being totally fresh to the event and the course, Jackson Goldstone put down a significant marker when he became the first rider to complete a full top to bottom run. Despite sitting out the whole of Friday it was Bernard Kerr who overcame his injuries to set the fastest time in Saturday qualifying, but it was Vincent Tupin’s gloriously lazy back flip on the step up that was the big talking point ahead of race day.
The French freeracer repeated the flip with even more steeze as one of the first riders down the course, but it was young Irish Nukeproof star Ronan Dunne – and subsequently Welsh Commencal racer Taylor Vernon – who put in the first scorching times. They’d sit on the podium for nearly the whole afternoon as subsequent riders slid out, hung up or were just happy to have survived the experience.
Co-commentator Rachel Atherton was obviously and understandably nervous as her brother Gee took to the start line, letting out a justified ‘Oh my Lord’ as he used every millimeter of the road-gap ramp. Despite claims he was far from race fit and ‘just there to get down’, the two-time World Champion still slotted into fifth place behind Dunne. Welsh racer and Hardline regular Joe Smith put his unlucky pedal tag ‘yard sale’ crash of 2021 behind him to take his custom-painted Vitus into first place by just 0.04 seconds. The top section started showing its teeth as Atherton Continental rider Charlie Hatton lost his front wheel as the berm blew out on the very first turn, before the remaining riders hurried down to try and repair it.
But Santa Cruz Syndicate star Jackson Goldstone was clearly on a mission right from the BF Goodrich start gate. Cutting hard inside the repaired turn to avoid repeating the first-turn disaster that cost him a follow-up win at the Junior World Champs, he floated through the first wood section fast enough to be nearly a second up on Smith just 30 seconds into his run. He then had to pull a massive whip to airbrake into the cliff drop. Three seconds up into the on/off feature he was gapping where nobody else did, while threading the boulder sections like he was on fast forward to go under the finish arch over 6.5 seconds ahead.
That put serious pressure on the two following riders, Adam Brayton and Bernard Kerr. Brayton attacked characteristically hard out of the gate, and was ahead at the first split. He didn’t get further than the top woods before sliding out, however, getting trapped under his Nukeproof. Kerr was also up at the first split, but didn’t even make it as far as the woods – well, technically he did, but he was sliding on his face as his Pivot cartwheeled over the top of him.
Bernard’s disappointment was Goldstone’s disbelieving delight, though, with the Canadian confirmed as the youngest and first ever first-time winner of Red Bull Hardline. Taylor Vernon and Joe Smith got the signature bronze and silver ‘Land Rover on ramp’ trophies for third and second, respectively, while Jess Blewitt proudly carried the rider-voted BF Goodrich ‘Rider of the week’ award in her good arm.
If the action sounds too good to miss for real next year, then check out our ‘How to Win at Hardline (as a spectator)’ feature, and bike checks on the rides of Jackson Goldstone, Joe Smith and Gee Atherton.