It's not often that an event's defending champion comes in as an underdog.
And yet, it was hard to consider Australian Caroline Buchanan anywhere near an overwhelming favourite coming into the RockShox Ultimate Pump Track Challenge on Aug. 16.
Buchanan, who won the 2017 race here in Whistler to cap an epic season-long battle with American Jill Kintner for the overall title, was seriously injured in an off-road buggy rollover last December, missing much of the season as she recovered. But she was back here at Crankworx, and it was, naturally, Kintner in the finals.
Buchanan ended up securing the victory by a two-run combined time of 0.68 seconds and announcing her return to contention.
"I started out this year in a hospital bed not sure if I'd ever ride a bike again, so to come from that and to be able to bike in six months and rebuild my body, rebuild my mind and come to the first event of the year (is great)," she said. "I reminded myself this might not be my mint condition but I know how to ride a bike, so that brought me that confidence."
Buchanan had a test run at a California event last month, but crashed. She was thrilled to rebound on the grand stage of Crankworx, beating Manon Carpenter and Kialani Hines before facing Kintner.
"I felt really good on the bike. I didn't think it was as natural as I used to, and I started the night qualifying in third, so I knew that I had some room to grow," she said. "Every lap, I find some little things I can improve and that got me those extra crucial seconds at the end of the day."
Kintner, meanwhile, secured the overall pump track title by qualifying for the semifinals to ease the sting of falling to Buchanan for a second consecutive year.
"It was cool to get it done before finals, for once," Kintner said with a chuckle. "It was a good year with a lot of close battles, actually, so we've got some nice depth now and with Caroline back, it's even more heated."
In the semifinals, both Hines and fellow American Jordan Scott won the second run of their respective battles with Buchanan and Kintner, but not by a large enough margin to overcome their deficits.
In the small final, Hines took third over Scott.
On the men's side, Crankworx rookie Collin Hudson took the scene by storm, qualifying second and besting overall champion Chaney Guennet of France in the big final.
Hudson had a slightly less strenuous road than others, as Tomas Slavik opted not to race the round of 16 and allowed the American direct advancement to the round of eight. But once there, Hudson survived the gauntlet of France's Adrien Loron⎯the defending world champion⎯then Les Gets winner Keegan Wright of New Zealand before upending Guennet by a combined 0.28 seconds.
Even after qualifying well, it was the victory over Loron that was inspiring, as he overcame a 0.11-second disadvantage to best the Frenchman by 0.12 seconds in the next run to eke out a net win by 0.01 seconds.
"I watched that dude win and podium very consistently. In the first round, he beat and I actually came back to upset him. It was right then that, 'Shoot, I can actually do pretty good tonight,'" he said. "It was all smiles the rest of the day, trying to fight the nerves and here were are."
Guennet, meanwhile, didn't feel he performed his best in the final but was otherwise happy with the day's events.
"I had a couple mistakes in the final, but I'm on the box today, so that's good, and I'm the world champion, so it feels really, really good," he said.
Lemoine, who would have won the overall title if he'd won the semifinal against Guennet, topped Wright in the small final.
The track, which was moved from Base II to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's Boneyard for this year, drew raves from riders for its technical features. However, because of a smaller footprint available to work with, some competitors were disappointed racing on a course that was shorter than normal.
Full results are available on www.crankworx.com.