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UCI World Cup 7 at Val Di Sole, Italy - An Unexpected Turn Of Events!
24th August 2011

val di sol 1Well what an end to my world cup season. I don't really know where to start or what to start by saying. My weekend at Val Di Sole has been so surprising I've spent most of it wondering if I'm actually awake. I think a good way to begin will be by summarising a plan I made just over 2 years ago. When I got the 30 UCI points at a Canadian national series race at the end of the 2009 season which granted me entry into the world cup series for 2010 I did some thinking. I was one year into my very demanding three year optometry degree and knew that with a realistic outlook I was going to be limited with regard to how far up the ranking ladder I could climb while completing it.

I told myself that the 2010 and 2011 world cup seasons would be purely a learning experience for me. I would not put too much pressure on myself to get specific results, and I would not try to join any teams or make any committing moves like that. I would simply use the European world cups to gain experience of racing at the highest level, and learn from absolutely everything that happened. 2012 would be my first full season on the circuit and my first realistic chance of starting to make a charge towards the top of the sport. By this time I would not only have gained experience, but would have the time to train much harder than I have these last two seasons.

So on reflection 2010 and 2011 have gone to plan up until Val Di Sole. I've had some good world cup results and learnt masses competing in them, and had some very good results in Canada, specifically a 3rd in the Garbanzo DH in Whistler. Val Di Sole is the first world cup track I've come to for the second time, knowing that I was fast here in 2010 with 38th place. I was feeling fast in practise and having made an adjustment to my front forks to slacken out the front end of my Ellsworth Dare (which as standard is very very steep) riding fast was coming to me much easier than usual. Getting the front wheel further away from me so my weight wasn't right over the hard hits Val Di Sole gives you left me wondering why I hadn't done this at the start of the season. The reason I hadn't is because setting the top crown at the top of the stantions of the fox 40s does slacken the head angle, but it also lifts the front end and the only other time I've tried this was at a mellow pedally UK track back in March (Moelfre) so it felt horrible. Here it was amazing and really got me excited to start riding the new Ellsworth DH rig (name still not confirmed) at the end of this year!

val di sol 2I was number 80, very lucky as it meant I could participate in the extended timed practice session on Thursday and also extended non-timed practice on Friday before qualifying. In timed practice on Thursday I decided to do two full runs, in order to compare a few different lines and see which were better on the clock. These were my 7th and 8th runs of the day, so I was feeling pretty tired by the end of it all and maybe did one run too many which I started to notice by Sunday. My time put me 8th place and was a 3.29. This means nothing, but at the same time it can mean everything. It gave me the confidence to believe I could qualify easily here. I knew I had time in the bag which I could pull out for qualifying and if nothing went wrong I would easily make the top 80.

Friday morning went well, with three practice runs and a good mental attitude on the way into the run. When I got on the chair lift I could see the screen displaying the top boys' qualification times of which about 20 were already down. All I noticed and took in was that Josh Bryceland had done a 3.27 and was in 13th place. Well I knew I could do that, it was only two seconds quicker than my practise time and I hadn't pedaled at all at the bottom which was a good few seconds. This was just going to be a case of keep calm, ride fast, don't crash and qualifying would be easy.

My run was great. However by no means perfect and with time left there for the race on Sunday. I hammered through the finish line pushing like hell because the track is so hard on you and I was so wild all the way down I felt like I was about to come last (similar to how I feel after the Garbo race in Whistler). I turned and saw 12th with a time of 3.23 pop up on the board... I can't really remember if I felt surprised or not. I just remember pumping my fist and being stoked I'd qualified for the finals. When I started to reflect on what had just happened 10 minutes or so later I accepted the scale of it. I'd come across the line thinking I had time left in me, and I'd still qualified 12th at a world cup, and 3rd Brit with Danny Hart in 3rd and Gee Atherton in 5th. I'd just done what I was aiming towards during my first full season in 2012, at the end of 2011 and without seeing it coming. I was starting to mess with the big boys!

I spent Friday night and Saturday enjoying my qualifying result. Standing next to riders I've looked up to for years on a world cup track during practice and having them congratulate me on my qualification result was a very strange but exciting feeling. I felt a massive weight of pressure on my shoulders dropping into the first rock garden on my first practice run as a lot of the top riders were hanging around looking at lines. They were probably all busy doing their own thing and not paying me any attention what-so-ever, but in my head they were analysing my every move, trying to figure out how I'd smashed out a 3.23 in qualifying and taking 12th spot. I managed to stay on the bike that first run which I was most focused on!

Race day was a challenge but I did well controlling the nerves and felt good going into the race. I had however had a huge crash during practice landing head first on a huge boulder and somehow not breaking my neck. I literally have no idea how it didn't snap and I spent the next 30 minutes waiting for it to suddenly start feeling funny. But apart from a little stiffness, I was OK. It was a challenge forgetting about it and moving onto my final practice run and keeping up the fast pace but I managed it.

val di sol jumpBefore my run I went down to the river with my girlfriend to cool down and get away from the stress of race preparation. Everything was ready to go and the bike was prime, I just needed to gear up and start taking my hourly course of SIS gels and bars. I sat there by the river thinking about how to approach the race run. I thought out-loud to Sarah, explaining that I figured I had two choices, either to do a fast but safe run, which would be around the same time as qualifying and would hopefully get me a top 30 or better result, or do what I wanted to do and go for it 100% and see how much of a stir I could cause. Before I finished speaking I knew I'd answered my own question 'do what I wanted to do'... so go for it it was, and if I stayed on the result would hopefully be something special.

I was feeling good at the top. It never phases me being at the top with the pros, I'm used to it after 3 years' racing Crankworx and being seeded well. My run started great. I wanted to go into the top rock garden hard, I knew that to have the run I wanted it would need to start aggressive, otherwise I'd stiffen up and make big mistakes. Down the bottom my top split popped up and probably to everyone's surprise I was holding it together, I'd done a 1.00.7 which was only 0.3 of a second off Greg Minaar and two seconds quicker than my top split in qualifying!

The first thing that everyone watching on the screen at the bottom along with all the freecaster viewers saw of my run was me flying over the handlebars. This wasn't because I'd over-cooked a section or couldn't hang on, it was my own stupid fault for not rethinking a line on my last practice run. I knew the line I was taking was getting beaten up and had huge holes and boulders in it, but I decided to stick with it because I'd been practicing it all weekend and thought it was too late to change. So my front wheel dived into one of these holes, hit a boulder as it tried to come out of it, stopped dead and flipped me over.

The rest of my run became a complete test of how hard I could push it and see if I could hang on to the bike. It was plain for everyone to see that I was struggling to keep it together at the bottom. I wasn't afraid of the speed, simple due to the lack of training I couldn't hang on to the bike the whole way down. I stalled a couple of times then nearly flipped over the bars on the last straight which looked pretty epic when I watched it back on freecaster. Other than that I was really happy with how I rode and amazed that with all the incidents including a big over the bars I finished with a 3.30 and 39th position. A result that coming into this event I would have been happy with.

I'm not at all disappointed with the race run. In fact I'm very happy with it. I rode amazingly well other than the crash and gave it everything, along with coping with the pressure of seeding 12th. I've learnt more from this outcome than I could have from the top 10 I would have achieved if I'd stayed on the bike, and it has really compounded the importance of training my ass off this winter and then through next season to be able to control the speed that I now know I am capable of!

I hope everyone who watch enjoyed it, I think my run was pretty entertaining! Sorry I didn't deliver the result all you friends wanted me to but it's coming, I promise!

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