Sam Blenkinsop (Wanganui) saved his seasons best performance for the most important race of the year today, winning the bronze medal at the infamous Champery Downhill course at the 2011 World Championship event. Right through this years World Cup season, the Elite Mens competiton has been fierce and a level up from previous years – Blenkinsop hasn't raced to the form he had displayed in 2009 and 2010 and took great comfort in being the first NZ mountainbike athlete to stand on an Elite World Championships podium today “Initially I was dissappointed in my run – a couple of crucial mistakes lost me time and the silver medal today, but the bronze medal is fine by me. I'm happy to keep pushing the level – winning the first New Zealand Elite World Cup and now standing on this World Championship Elite podium, I'm OK with that”
The day started tough for the NZ Downhill team, with the expected wet weather kicking in right before the start of the Junior Womens race. While the ladies were prepared with set-ups for muddy and wet conditions, the speed with which the Champery course deteriorated caught most starters by surprise. Within minutes the course became treacherous, with none of the Junior Women going clean for their race runs. NZ's fastest seed Sarah Atkin off her bike three times during her run, on what would be termed a blind run given the course conditions – Atkin 5th and the best of the kiwis. British World Cup sensation Manon Carpenter won the rainbow stripes this year in her first attempt.
The Junior men were next away with the rain continuing to fall. Long delays with the race start proved difficult to manage, with most of the Junior Mens field corralled at the chairlift base station with limited shelter from the weather's misery. When racing finally resumed, hopes were high for success with Nelson's Reuben Olorenshaw 4th to last starter after his fast qualification run. However, Olorenshaw couldn't go clean, with lost time due to a couple of very minor slides off the race line, eventually finishing 8th. Defending World Champion Troy Brosnan (Australia) won again, and was in a league of his own today in the most challenging conditions faced this year during the World Cup season.
Amy Laird wasn't able to convert her confidence today into a top of the field result in the Elite Womens, struggling with the conditions and finishing towards the back of the field. France's Emmeline Ragot won the World Championship title for her first time today, yet another European athlete who has used the NZ summer race season to boost her development and form in previous years.
The main event on the programme today was the Elite Mens Downhill race. The weather continued to stew, with rain falling throughout the 100 strong start list – becoming more and more intense the closer the start order got to the fastest ranked riders. Mat Scoles (Alexandra) was the first NZ athlete to take on the Champery course, and spent some time in the hot seat as second fastest rider at that stage of the race. Blenkinsop was on a typically charging run which took him to the second place position, before Justin Leov (Dunedin) took the start - Leov went into his race run with an 80% strategy in place, planning not to push too hard but to ride cleanly to a competitive time. Things went well until a slight front wheel stall sent Leov to the deck, and from there it was all damage control. Last Kiwi starter was Brook MacDonald (Napier). The Bulldog has shown a talent for pushing hard in the first half of races he has done well in this season, but today was off the pace at the first split and simply couldn't find the gas to gain those lost seconds in the last half of the course, finishing 9th.
But the day belonged to British athlete Danny Hart. Hart audaciously attacked from the very first corner in a strategy that would either end in disaster or his first Championship title. Hart displayed the type of brilliance today that will become the stuff of legend in this sport, on a course that couldn't have been in worse condition and against a quality of field that has been dicing closely all year. Hart was so fast and confident that he even had time for one of his characteristic 'relaxing' whips over a massive double jump at the bottom of the course – the huge crowd knew they had witnessed a sublime and almost arrogant performance as Hart crossed the line. Five starters were still to come, but it was clear to all that Hart had done more than enough to win, when World Cup champion and final starter Aaron Gwin (USA) slipped off course in the bottom half. Blenkinsop proudly took the third step on the podium today, and this backs up his silver medal at the 2006 World Championships as a Junior. Blenkinsop will now return to his home base of Wanganui for the NZ summer, to firstly take a break from racing and then to plan his assault on the 2012 World Cup season.
The Downhill wraps up the NZ MTB Team's 2011 World Championship campaign, in what is the teams most successful campaign yet. Anton Cooper's silver medal in the Junior Mens Cross Country race, Rosara Joseph's 7th in Elite Women's Cross Country, together with Blenkinsop's bronze today, and a raft of other top ten results highlights NZ's capacity to punch above its weight yet again in a true World Championship level sporting event.