Editor’s Note: This past weekend at Windham, Aaron Gwin did it again. And by “again” I don’t just mean that he won the race, I mean that he did something pretty jawdropping. Something up there with his recent broken-chain victory…
These recent feats raise the question: Which rider has the highest ceiling of any DH racer of all time? And is Gwin moving into that conversation?
To clarify here: we’re actually less interested in some definitive answer to the question, “Who is the greatest DH rider ever?” and more interested in the question, “What rider, on his or her best day, would you take against the field—i.e., every other rider on his or her best day?”
Marshal Olson: First, a little perspective: Aaron Gwin has 13 World Cup race wins, 2 (going on 3) World Cup overall titles, and zero World Championships. Nico Voullioz won 10 World Championships. And Anne-Caroline Chausson won 55 World Cup races in an era of very close women’s DH racing (against the likes of Tracy Moseley, Missy Giove, Sabrina Jonnier, etc.) Gwin has an incredibly long way to go to get in there with those names.
Noah Bodman: Like Marshal said, it’s tough to argue against Anne Carro. There have been lots of racers over the years that have shown a lot of promise, had a season or two of dominance, and then slowly receded into the pack. Sam Hill is a great example—when he was on, he was unbeatable. But aside from a few glimmers of brilliance, he’s rarely a serious threat to the podium any more.
Gwin had a great run last week at Windham, but ultimately, it wasn’t that unique in the grand scheme of things. When Gwin first rose to dominance a few years back, it wasn’t any individual win that was all that impressive, it was that he could show up and win at every race against a competitive field. He was solid on every course, from flat pedal-fests to the steepest, most technical tracks on the circuit.
But in large part, that consistency is gone. Which isn’t to say that he’s not a serious contender at every single race, but he’s no longer the presumptive winner before the race even starts.
So who has the highest ceiling right now? I’d say Loic Bruni. He’s 21—seven years younger than Gwin. And while he hasn’t put together a winning run yet, he’s right there in the mix every single time. He has a consistency that is pretty rare for someone that young. If he can stay healthy and keep air in his tires, I’d wager that he’ll be standing on the podium quite a bit in the upcoming years.
Q: Wait, Noah, just to be clear: are you saying that you think Loic could have the highest ceiling ever???
Noah: Not really. I just think he’s the most interesting up-and-coming rider. Highest ceiling ever? How do you even define that? Are they the “best” if they completely slaughter the competition by the largest margins? Or are they the best because they win the most races? Or are they the best because they’re constantly on the podium, year in and year out?
Ultimately, I don’t care. Gwin / Ratboy / whoever winning all the time makes for boring racing. DH is great this year because there’s a solid field of contenders at any given race. I like watching it because there isn’t one racer that’s completely dominant. Or in other words, it’s an actual race, not just a processional with an inevitable victor.
Cy Whitling: I agree that crowning Gwin as some kind of all-time-great is premature. However, it’s hard not to be impressed by a guy that for the better part of two years is so dominant that everyone else is basically battling for second.
I think part of the reason that some people (especially Americans) are so eager to do that has a little to do with timing. His 10th place at Mont Sainte-Anne in 2008 was the first time that an American made the top ten in a World Cup since 2004.
He then went on to dominate the 2011 and 2012 seasons, winning 5 out of 7 races in 2011, and 4 out of 6 races in 2012. American DH needed someone to root for, and Gwin, especially in 2012 when he proved his 2011 season wasn’t just a flash in the pan, filled that role.
On top of all that, he’s a great American underdog story. He quits motocross due to injuries, hops on a loaned DH bike, takes 3rd in his first race, and then in a matter of months, goes on to compete at the highest levels of the World Cup.
Flag-wearing, chainsaw-waving ‘Murican fans needed a hero and Gwin came along and dominated at exactly the right time.
NEXT: What about Sam Hill?