A Change in Women's World Cup Downhill is Upon Us
We could be seeing a changing of the guard in women’s downhill racing. And it's not because three of the most competitive racers are out with injury, which will only be temporary. What’s happening now has more to do with how the absences are affecting the confidence of the competition.
Rachel Atherton is the latest top female racer to be taken out by injury. During the first day of practice, Rachel hit the last gap on the Les Gets track – a sort of step-down to a high-impact, flat landing. Rachel immediately felt a really strange discomfort in her right ankle. By her account after the impact she rolled the final two turns into the finish area screaming for help. Shortly after visiting the local hospital, Rachel learned that she had a suspected tear to her Achilles tendon.
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Devastated to say that as I landed super heavy on the last flat jump I had a huge INSANELY PAINFUL ankle & felt so Disgustingly STRANGE!! . Possible damage to my Achilles’ tendon... . . 🤮 Absolutely Devastated. Not sure what’s going to happen but I’ll be going home tomorrow to get sorted out, just so gutted & upset. Sorry to everyone & thanks to everyone. #womendown #gutted
She promptly departed for home but still dropped in on Saturday, only in a completely different venue. By the time Rachel’s competitors were racing on Saturday, she was already under the knife. There’s a long road to recovery after an Achilles tear, with estimates of up to one year to fully heal. Rachel will spend 6–12 weeks in a cast as the first step to the healing process. She isn’t wasting any time getting the ball rolling in the right direction either.
But I don’t believe competitors like Nina Hoffmann, Marine Cabirou or Mariana Salazar have posted strong results purely because Rachel, Tahnée and Myriam are out with injury. It likely has more to do with these competitors seeing an opportunity and grabbing the bull by the horns. Each of these ladies looks impressively comfortable on the bike but when your top competitors are icons, it can be hard to build the confidence to shine against them. Tahnée Seagrave presented a similar opinion in the post-race show.
She promptly departed Les Gets for home but still dropped in on Saturday, only into a completely different race. By the time Rachel’s competitors were racing on Saturday, she was already under the knife.
These girls are talented and the level of competition is through the roof – despite the absence of the top three. Hoffmann’s race run in Vallnord the week before was on the edge and it looked like she was going to win the damn thing. Then she got a touch off-line and erupted into a cloud of dust. Salazar looked strong in Les Gets and was happily hitting the awkward bottom jump while some of her peers avoided it. She was so comfortable that she couldn’t understand why they had issues and when you see her hit it at race pace – bar tweak and all – it’s clear she’s ready for more podiums. And there’s a strong chance that Marine Cabirou will snatch a race victory from Tracey Hannah this season. Marine was only 0.6 back from Trace in both qualifying and finals in Les Gets, which surely has Tracey nervous. The overall isn’t hers yet.
Probably the biggest indication of the revolution coming to women's downhill is the presence of Vali Höll and Anna Newkirk. Vali posted the fastest time of all ladies on the Les Gets track, crossing the line more than a second ahead of Tracey Hannah’s winning elite time. Although Vali's race was held on the track before the junior men's race and an hour of elite practice, conditions didn't appear to change much. We also need to remember that Vali is coming back from injury; her healing shoulder is still preventing her from riding her best. With her times regularly challenging the top women at each World Cup, and often double digits ahead of junior rival Anna Newkirk, there’s no denying Vali's pace.
Newkirk isn’t sitting back and letting it happen to her though. Instead, she’s motivated by Vali’s speed and is pushing forward. While the gap between her and Vali was close to thirteen seconds in Les Gets, Anna still posted a ninth-place time in the elite field. And there were almost 30 seconds between her and third place junior, Lauryn Chappaz. Vali may be winning comfortably, but she’s raising the speed and skill of the entire junior field in the process.
Vali posted the fastest time of all ladies on the Les Gets track, crossing the line more than a second ahead of Tracey Hannah’s winning elite time.
Would Vali have beaten Tracey if they raced in the same heat? I'm leaning toward yes but we'll have to wait until the 2020 season to see that battle. And although Vali's time was the fastest of the women in Les Gets, it doesn't matter. Tracey Hannah won the elite race and leaves France as she arrived, with the leader's jersey. Tracey says she’s happy about that, but Marine isn’t too far behind. With three rounds left, Trace needs to remain focused and continue to ride at her limit. If she doesn't, she risks falling behind the pack of high-speed ladies nipping at her heels, or letting Vali swell with confidence ahead of her promotion to the senior ranks in 2020.