The culmination of pressure and purpose define what it means to be the World Champion. The World Cup series is high stakes, but it is a slower burn. Strategy, timing, training, vacation, fun, they all play a part in the success of a lengthy season. World Championships is a one-and-done. One lap, one time, one chance. The pressure is immense for the athletes, and although they are used to representing their sponsors and support givers throughout the season, one group rally harder than any brand, sponsor, friend, well-wisher could ever could: their fellow countrymen.
The pride a nation carries with having a champion is one of unification and camaraderie. The rider’s skills were built on the soil you came from, supported by the communities the country houses, nourished by the food grown by farmers. Everyone gets to celebrate their champion because everyone plays a part. Since 1990 many nations have had the honor of producing a Downhill Mountain Biking World Champion, but some nations had already been producing cycling heroes. Enter the French.
You can’t talk about competitive cycling without talking about the French. It’s from here. The two have been braided together since cycling’s inception, one without the other doesn’t feel right. If a person says, “Imagine a road bike race” It’s almost impossible to not envision a Yellow jersey, the moonscape of the summit of Mont Ventoux, or a pack of riders barrelling towards the Arc de Triomphe. For over 100 years the French have been birthing, hosting and building the lore of bicycle racing. When mountain biking appeared on the scene, they reacted the only way they knew how; they went racing.
The mountain bike is hailed as a North American creation. There are various stories as to who/what/when/where and why, but it’s generally agreed upon that it was born on the west coast, riding down old dirt roads. Throughout the 80’s the mountain bike went through it’s growing pains. Knobby tires, grippy pedals, a more comfortable geometry and even suspension were added. Each new iteration of “mountain bike” became better with more technology and more users. As popularity rose, it led to an inevitability: The first World Championships.
Held in Durango, Colorado, the first World Championships were a great example of what America had created. Fast dirt roads, chunky singletracks and a podium full of American’s. This would be the only time (thus far) there was an all-American podium. Europe was catching on, and with the massive amount of hiking infrastructure and cycling culture the entire continent began to swell with mountain bike fever. Peille, France is home to (arguably) the first modern Downhill Course. Raw, rugged, rocky singletrack in the arid hills of France’s Maritime alps, this course was amid already legendary road riding, so naturally it housed cyclists and cycling fans. The fans had a new discipline to celebrate beyond the already hallowed road bike races, they had a whole new group of heroes ready to be celebrated.
The French fans have long been hailed as passionate. Since the first ever broadcast of the Tour De France in 1948 (the 35th iteration of the race), the world was able to catch a glimpse of their visceral, emotional investment in all those who chose to come and test their mettle on France’s roads. Legendary parties, streets flooded with people, restaurants and bars with patrons pouring out of the doors all unified and joined in celebration of world cycling culture swirling around them in real time.
In the 33 years of the Downhill Mountain Bike World Championships, there have been 66 opportunities for gold between men and women. 31 of those golds have been won by French riders. Mirroring road biking, the fans have shown up in full force time and time again, proud of the athletes their culture has supported and created.
Les Get 2022 was a special year for World Championships. The globe is in recovery from two years of a global pandemic that restricted cycling for a variety of reasons, but everything felt right in Les Gets. The fans were out in droves, filling the air with an electrical charge you could feel course through your body from across the valley. The course was lined 10 deep on both sides from the start all the way to the bottom, with the finishing straight/ corral being packed with thousands and thousands of people. The costumes, dogs, beer, sirens, chainsaws, flares, speakers, bike parts recycled as noisemakers all collided to create a volatile ocean of madness at the bottom of the course. But there was something distinctly different about this crowd. There was an underlying current of unabashed joy. These people were here to celebrate cycling.
As more racers made their way down the course, the crowd began to swell and sway. Closing in on the top 10 meant closing in on what many came to see: the top-ranked French riders. The chainsaws began to scream and the horns blared, being matched by the unmistakable roar of 25’000 beer-fueled bodies cheering in unison. As Amaury Pierron hit the final jump the crowd went from a rolling boil to steam. He was met with the smell of burnt metal and mixed gas on the wind and a deafening wall of sound. He hit the final turn, the crowd burst through the fences, moving down the hill into the finish corral like an avalanche. It was a full French podium. It is rare people rally in this manner for reasons of celebration, but the fans could not be contained. They stormed the faux podium, they stormed the riders, they stormed Les Gets. The party ran late into the night and well into the next morning. But when it was time to walk the streets there was no destroyed cars, no burnt down buildings, no shattered windows, no destruction. This wasn’t a riot, this was a celebration.
As the future of UCI Downhill Mountain Biking continues to change, there are many questions as to how it will be broadcast, viewed and celebrated. Les Gets will go down in history as an inarguable triumph of cycling culture and a vision of the joy, pride and unity cycling can bring to people.
Photos by Anthony Smith. Words by Peter Matthews.