We’ve been to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Mountain Bike World Cup at Snowshoe Mountain Resort for the past two events, but this year’s rendition provided the races we’ve been eagerly anticipating. While 2019 and 2021 featured dusty, sun-flecked trails, this year’s treacherous track conditions showcased what mountain biking in West Virginia is really all about—slick roots, perilous rocks, and peanut-buttery mud so thick that just stepping in it could suck one’s shoe right off.
After being added in 2019 as the only American venue on the UCI World Cup circuit, Snowshoe became globally acclaimed among riders and fans alike for its technical terrain and heart-pounding finishes. “Snowshoe is known for the sketchy rocks everywhere. When it’s dry, it’s already something, but when it’s wet, it’s another challenge,” said Amaury Pierron, a French downhill mountain biker who won this year’s elite men’s downhill race and currently leads in the overall standings.
When we arrived on Thursday, the mountain top was drenched in a thick layer of fog. Torrential rain from the previous days had transformed the downhill and cross-country tracks into manky, muddy madness, leaving riders a bit nervous and fans to wonder how this year’s event would stack up. Snowshoe hosted three mountain bike races in the 2022 World Cup series from July 29–31: the sixth downhill (DHI) race, and seventh cross-country short circuit (XCC) and cross-country Olympic (XCO) races. And once again, West Virginia’s rugged mountains and relentless weather culminated in an unforgettable event.
Snowshoe changed up the downhill course this year, building some entirely new sections to keep riders on their toes and push them to their limits. Prior to the race, Snowshoe bike park manager and World Cup course director Evan Cole walked the course with UCI officials, downhill rider Thibaut Deprela, and 2021 downhill champion Loïc Bruni. “We spent four hours walking down the course, looking at every root and every rock,” said Cole. “It’s neat to be able to tap into their eyes and their perspective because our normal bike park crowd isn’t riding these trails at the speed these riders are pushing themselves.”
After endless hours of building features, cutting tree limbs, moving rocks, and changing plans, Cole and the Snowshoe team finalized the challenging course. Then, in true West Virginia fashion, the rain came in, metamorphosizing Cheat Mountain’s lovely loam into gooey, sticky, greasy mud. With each successive practice session and qualifying run, the course got progressively slicker and rutted out, rocketing tires off roots and sending riders into the muck. “It demands a lot of confidence, mental strength, and skill on a bike. It’s physical as well because you need to carry speed,” Pierron described.
The cool, cloudy conditions on race day started to dry out exposed sections of the track, but the forested sections remained saturated and slick, especially for the 14 elite women racers. With an impressive technical run, Camille Balanche came in first at 4:28.585, netting her third World Cup win of the season and securing her leading position in the overall standings. French phenom Myriam Nicole came in four seconds behind, even after a crash in the rocks, maintaining her second-place overall position.
The 62 elite men racers followed suit, leading to yet another nail-biting and legendary Snowshoe finish. “I don’t know how to explain it… year after year it comes down to the last rider,” said Cole. The top-five men all finished within four seconds of one another, with Pierron, the final rider, coming out on top at 3:34.442 and Bernard Kerr just 0.4 seconds behind. The win was a shock not only to fans, but likely to Pierron himself, who almost didn’t compete.
“I had a bad crash in Andorra, so my body is not at its best and I hit my head a little bit. I had ten days off training and just did nothing to heal up the best that I can,” Pierron told us before the finals. “I’m not in the best shape for the race, but I’ll do what I can to score some points.”
And score points he did—Pierron not only secured his top spot in the overall standings this year, but also became the fourth rider ever to win four World Cup downhill races in a season. Pierron’s explosive final run was the cherry on top of a delicious multilayered downhill cake, packed to the brim with close calls, crazy crashes, and frenetic fans. “The [qualifiers] were already insane; the West Virginia fans really are something,” said Pierron. “They were screaming all the way down.”
“All the riders seemed like they really enjoyed the challenge,” said Cole. “They appreciate not having to go full-pin and fifty miles-per-hour on an open ski slope. They can try to have a more technical, smoother line; no three riders are gonna ride it the exact same. They’re athletes and extremely skilled, but at the same time, they want that adrenaline that high intensity moment. They definitely got it.”
Elite Cross-County Short Track
Although the downhill racing is all about adrenaline, the competitive nature of the cross-country races is equally thrilling. Friday’s cross-country short circuit (XCC) races delivered yet again, with Americans taking the wins in the elite women’s and men’s races—a first for any UCI World Cup event. Gwendalyn Gibson, in her first year as an elite racer, had an absolutely staggering final-lap surge to take home her first-ever world cup win right here on home soil. Gibson’s surprise debut win provided a mega boost to the patriotism already on display by the starred-and-striped crowd that packed both sides of the entire course. Standing there with thousands of fans as they cheered and slammed their hands on the course rails while Gibson crossed the finish line with tears in her eyes was a special moment that will long be remembered. “The energy, the electricity is just out of this world,” said Cole.
Soon after, Christopher Blevins, who had a spectacular win in the 2021 XCO race at Snowshoe, brought home yet another amazing comeback win for the elite men’s XCC race. Blevins had a lead midway but hung back for most of the race, weaving through several crashes on the slick course and overtaking three riders in the final 100-meter sprint to the finish line.
Peter Felber, a mechanic for Specialized Factory Racing who’s been on the World Cup circuit for 14 years, prepped Blevins’s bike for the race. From tires and tire pressure to brake pads and lubrication, Felber operates under constant pressure to adapt to rapidly changing course conditions. “With conditions like that, because you wait an hour at the bike wash, you have a lot of time to think about all this stuff,” Felber said. “It’s not easy, especially with the lube. You have to think because the lube doesn’t last for the whole race.”
Sunday brought the return of gnarly weather for the Olympic cross-country (XCO) race, which saw four American women place in the top-ten but all miss a step on the winners’ podium. Swiss rider Alessandra Keller placed first for the women; Spaniard David Valero had an unlikely win among the men. Blevins, who briefly gained the lead after a flat tire mishap, ended up placing fourth after “burning all his matches” on the final lap. The weather for both races was so raw, in fact, that we decided it best to leave our camera equipment in the car. As such, you can scope some amazing images here from the XCO elite women’s and men’s XCO races on Pinkbike.
With the third Snowshoe World Cup in the books, we’re already eyeing up next year. But the big questions remains: will the UCI World Cup return to Snowshoe? The current contract ends with this year’s race, but the rumor mill is already churning out news of a renewal. With three years of spectacular, nail-biting downhill finishes on one of the globe’s toughest tracks, American riders on XC podiums, and some of the best fans anywhere, it would seem a no-brainer to bring the event back here to the Mountain State. Or, as Cole put it, “Everybody is saying that Snowshoe’s a special place, like the best place to race on the face of the planet. We’re hearing all these accolades and kind words said about Snowshoe. It’s just a dream come true.”
The HO staff has four fingers crossed that we’ll be trackside at Snowshoe in 2023 for even bigger, better, badder coverage of this most excellent event. Stay tuned!