At 7.30am on Saturday 11th September 2004, New Zealander Vanessa Quin made her way to the lift station to go up Mont Chery in Les Gets (France) for her first practice run of the morning. This was the World Championships finals day. A day where racers put it all on the line for the chance to win a gold medal and to have the honor of wearing the coveted rainbow stripes for the next 12 months.
As the sun slowly rose into the sky Vanessa didn’t know that firm favorite Anne-Caroline Chausson had just crashed-out high up in the woods. An early morning rain shower had made that section a little slippery and it had caught out the almost unbeatable Frenchwoman. After eight years of domination there was to be a new woman’s World Champion.
Vanessa was part of the Dirt INTENSE team back then (2004-2006) – as she puts it, “ultimate bikes given to a team of misfits”. She’d started out on the M1 but by 2004 she was riding the M3, “INTENSE always made amazing bikes, and I felt like I was racing on the Ferrari of bicycles. I could talk to Jeff (Steber) about what I needed in a bike and he’d work his magic. One year he made me a custom lightweight M6 downhill rig, he even marked its serial number with my initials.”
Dirt magazine was all about downhill racing and they enjoyed a cult following, they also managed to run a World Cup team for many seasons. So Vanessa was holed-up with a bunch of would-be journalists and photographers from Dirt. She was the only racer staying in the chalet, so it wasn’t really the perfect environment to prepare for the biggest race of the year. There were a lot of late nights, strangers wandering around at all hours, hungover bodies at breakfast, etc. The Dirt crew believed that there was as much fun to be had off the hill as there was on it!
In 2004 Vanessa was having her most successful year of racing ever. She had already been on three World Cup podiums that season and was on course for a top five finish overall. With Chausson crashing out and two other big name contenders injured (Tracy Moseley and Sabrina Jonnier) the opportunity to win the World Championships was there for the taking.
Vanessa had qualified in a very respectable second place, and with Chausson out that of course meant that she would be last down the hill… with a mountain of pressure on her shoulders. When it came to the final runs the Americans weren’t able to dent the podium. Japanese rider Mio Suemasa sat in the hot seat, but next on the hill was local rider, and home favorite, Celine Gros. If anyone had one hand on the gold medal it was her… but it was not to be. That just left Vanessa, at the top of the hill, all alone. She coolly and calmly rode her way down the mountain. At the split she was two seconds quicker than Suemasa. All she had to do was hold her line and hold her nerve. Keep it tidy, but keep her speed. Vanessa crossed the line over two and a half seconds ahead… the new 2004 Downhill World Champion.
“The World Championships definitely changed everything for me. I was more confident that I could match the best girls in the world at the time. The Dirt team was my ultimate happy place. I loved racing for Jeff and Jen (Gabrielli), and INTENSE was like a big family. Kathy Sessler was such a massive part of it too, and I’ll always be grateful to her and her husband Chuck for making me feel so welcome. But my biggest love racing for INTENSE was my mechanic Johnny Roy Bottema. I really wish he was still around. The parties, marshmallow fights, amazing bikes, best racing, road trips across the US, gambling, and open-ended kindness and humor the extended INTENSE team shared will always be hard to replicate.” - Vanessa
Vanessa raced on INTENSE bikes from 2000 through to her retirement from World Cups in 2007, “INTENSE has always helped women in racing, Jeff and Jen always supported and encouraged us on and off the bike”. She had her fair share of injuries along the way, riding the majority of her career in wrist braces (as she’d broken both of them), and amazingly she had also broken her neck just 18 months prior to ‘04 Worlds. She fought through it and worked hard to get back up to speed, proving that grit, determination and of course skill, can get you a long, long way.
We’ll let Jeff have the final word, “My memory serves me well on this one, as it was one of those magical moments in our sport when we witness the years of hard work, tenacity and talent land a racer on the top step of the World Champs podium. Not many people get to stand up there and it was such an honor to see Vanessa pilot her baby blue M3 to World Cup history. That was definitely an “Intense For Life” moment that I will never forget."
Photos: Geoff Waugh (skinsuit), Mike Rose and Dirt cover by Shawn ‘Gordo’ Spomer.
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