Editor’s note: Singletrack.com presents these selections from the January 2012 edition of Velo, the magazine’s 24th annual awards issue. It’s only a sampler — so to find out which women got the award and get the full scoop, pick up a copy of the January 2012 edition of Velo.
North American Mountain Biker of the Year (men): Aaron Gwin
We’re the first to admit we don’t pay as close attention to downhill racing as we do cross-country. But it doesn’t take a deep understanding of the discipline to acknowledge Aaron Gwin’s 2011 season as the greatest a North American man has had since Roland Green in 2001. Gwin, who rode his first World Cup event in 2008, took the international downhill scene by storm this year, becoming the first American to win a DH World Cup overall title, and the first rider from any nation to win five World Cup DH events in one season.
The Trek World Racing rider sealed up his overall World Cup win at La Bresse, France, with one event still remaining; but instead of celebrating, the 24-year-old, gluten-free Californian stood frustrated on the podium after finishing only third on the day. At the first checkpoint during the muddy world championships in Champéry, Switzerland, Gwin was on track to challenge Danny Hart’s mind-blowing performance, but the American crashed and found himself tangled in safety netting.
The world championship run hadn’t been his day, but at five of seven 2011 World Cup events, it had been his day — and his season.
International Mountain Biker of the Year (men): Jaroslav Kulhavy
What’s left to accomplish when you’ve already won the World Cup cross country overall title? Win the world championship, of course. And that’s just what 26-year-old Specialized rider Jaroslav Kulhavy did in Champéry, Switzerland. After a four-man group emerged at the front of the race, including former world XC champs Julien Absalon, Nino Schurter and Juan Antonio Hermida, the Czech rider confirmed his season-long dominance by shedding all three men to finish 47 seconds ahead of Schurter.
Throughout the 2011 season, 2009 world champ Schurter was the lone true rival for Kulhavy, who secured his World Cup title on home soil in August at the Nove Mesto Na Morave event with one race still remaining.
At the final round of the UCI World Cup in Val di Sole, Italy, Kulhavy attacked in the final kilometer and easily outsprinted Schurter, popping a wheelie as he crossed the line.
“He was playing with us,” said Schurter. “I tried to attack, but he just sat on, and I could not drop him.”
Kulhavy’s dream season was nearly a nightmare — he lost several teeth and suffered facial lacerations after colliding with a car in a June training accident, but it didn’t hamper his results. He finished second at the world mountain bike marathon championship just nine days after the accident, and then, one week later, won at Mont-Sainte Anne, finishing an incredible 1:42 ahead of Schurter. Kulhavy beat Schurter again a week later at Windham, but it was the victory in August, in front of his countrymen, that he viewed as the best in his career, calling the World Cup overall title the “fulfillment of a dream.” Three weeks later he topped it off with his first elite rainbow jersey, his only remaining objective. Kulhavy heads into the 2012 Olympic season as the favorite for a gold medal in London.