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12th February - Fetish Downhill @ Innerleithen, Scotland

The South African World Cup is being held on the 18th of March. It's the first of the 2012 series and is very early in the year. I am planning on competing in every round this year (for the first time), so I'm taking racing even more seriously and training very hard to get things off to a good start in South Africa. For this reason I wanted to get the racing going this weekend up at Innerleithen in Scotland to see how the extra efforts are paying off when I get between the tape.

Unfortunately the 2012 prototype World Cup DH frame that Tony Ellsworth has been developing throughout the winter, with help from me with regards to angles and sizing, isn't yet out of production. I have spent the winter months on a different frame with the outlook that it would be more similar than my old race bike to what Ellsworth are going to produce, so it would make winter training more effective while waiting for the new ride. This weekend I headed up to Innerleithen for the Fetish Downhill race with this stand-in bike.

Inners Feb 2012

In recent weeks I have tested different bikes in order to gather lots of experience so I can more effectively help on any modifications needed for the new Ellsworth when it arrives. From this I learnt that the bike I was testing was too small for me, and not as slack as the new Ellsworth would be. Therefore, after speaking with a few different people, Steve of Icycles in Innerleithen very kindly agreed to help me out with a different frame. This would be similar geometry to the new Ellsworth, which should arrive in two weeks' time. By more similar I mean longer and slacker than I've spent the winter on. This frame from Steve was supposed to turn up early next week – after the Inners weekend!

Saturday practice was awesome. The track was really fast and fun with quite a lot of technical sections at high speed. I instantly felt more comfortable than I previously remember feeling at Innerleithen, which was down to the bike. I was riding fast and smashing lines comfortably which in previous years I remember feeling quite sketchy on. I put this down mainly to the slacker head angle. I was riding with my good friend and elite racer Will Jones. We were loving the track and pushing each other to keep it pinned. With a few line tips from local elite Pete Williams who is out with a broken leg at the moment, I finished the day feeling awesome on the track and looking forward to the race.

Fetish DH podiumI've started riding Schwalbe tyres for 2012 and to put it simply, they're awesome. I did some tyre testing on Saturday comparing the Wicked Will, Big Betty (the two dry tyres) and the Muddy Mary. Innerleithen's surface is very hard packed, even though it was very wet there is still lots of grip and full wet tyres are usually not needed and just roll slower. I found little difference in grip between the three, even on the two off camber sections where I was having to really rely on grip and cut up high. Therefore I went for the Wicked Will which is the all out dry tyre and is therefore the fastest rolling of the three. It also has these awesome extreme side nobbles which dig in when you bank the tyre over into a turn, and probably helped out on the off camber stuff.

At the end of the day we cleaned up and headed down the road to see Steve at Icycles, to thank him for the help getting the new frame. Unexpectedly it had turned up the day before. What followed was a hectic two hours of bike building that evening. By switching frames on race day I gambled, hoping that this replacement would in fact be slacker and longer than I was already on. Not ideal for a race weekend I know, but the main reason I was there was to learn and train for South Africa in 5 weeks' time. So switching frames had to be done, the major reason being that I suspected that this second frame was going to be similar to the new Ellsworth and needed to gather information on handling etc.

I knew immediately on Sunday morning that this bike was better for me. I rolled down the road from the rental cottage to the event and could instantly feel a change for the better. All through Saturday I'd been struggling with the first corner of the track, feeling like the bike was getting bogged down in it and I was struggling to keep speed. This bike seemed to accelerate through and out of it. All the way down that first run I could feel that the bike was saying - 'come on lets go faster', whereas on the other bike we were on the limit. I did another two practice runs and was then looking forward to the race.

at the finish Fetish DHThe first race run was one of the best race runs I think I've ever had until it went wrong towards the bottom. It was fast, smooth, aggressive, no mistakes, the bike felt awesome. I even did a huge gap that I'd not even looked at in practice. I'd glanced at it when we walked the track but thought... 'naaah'. I just carried so much speed into it my head took over and before I knew it we were in the air. It felt awesome. Unfortunately, and I can't remember the last time this happened to me, I got a front puncture as I flew out of the fastest steepest section of the track. I couldn't quite believe it at first so carried on riding hard as the air gradually filtered out of the tyre until it was completely flat within two corners. I rolled to the bottom very irritated, after I'd had such a great run ruined by a mechanical, which in turn completely destroyed my front rim.

That's racing, “learn from it and move on”, has got to be the motto. I got everything working smoothly for the next run and importantly checked my tyre pressures! It's hard to keep your race head in the game when everyone else has a time on the board and you've now only got one shot at it. I kept calm and knew I needed to go up and do exactly the same again, fast, aggressive, smooth and relaxed. I had another great start to the race run and felt good coming out the top section to cross the first fire road. Then I strangely managed to land a small jump into a bog a little off balance, the front wheel went from under me and I went down. It was incredibly annoying as it was one of the easiest parts of the track and I still can't work out why it happened. But it did. I slid across the start of the road crossing on my side and came to a wet muddy stop. I jumped up, shouted a few explicates and hopped back on rolling into the next woods where I'd normally be sprinting and picking up even more speed.

I kept my head and pushed hard for the bottom. The worst thing you can do after a crash in a race run is get over excited and try to be a super hero. You'll just crash again, believe me I've been there many times when I was starting out. I kept my head through the next section of woods as I waited to be back up to speed and relax again. I think all things considered the crash cost me at least 10 seconds, maybe more. The rest of the run was pinned. When I'd calmed down I really rode hard to the bottom. I came home with a 3.06. My ONeal team mate Adam Brayton took the win by importantly staying on his bike with a 3.01, and local Arron Gannicot was 2nd with a 3.05. I was disappointedly third, annoyed that I'd not reflected the way I'd been riding on this new bike with a result to match. Will Jones had a good first elite race taking 4th. He had a smooth first run with a 3.10, then went for it with his second and did a 3.09 but made a big mistake at the top. Good consistency for the first elite race dude and not off the pace by any means!

However, it was initially very irritating, but for the bigger picture it only means good things. After hopping on a new bike this morning for the first time, I feel awesome on it and would have thrown it down in under 3 minutes and for the win if (I hate using that word!) I'd not been a muppet and had a stupid crash. Now I have even more understanding as to how to help develop the new Ellsworth. the bigger frame and slacker angle improves my riding even further.

Over the next 4 weeks, in the run up to South Africa, I'll be training harder than I've ever trained before. I'm so up for this season words can't tell you. A few exciting things I have planned are a weekend filming with George Milner at Keilder and Alwinton. This is for media material to promote Carl Davidson's Northern Downhill Series. Then I have a four day training trip planned for the beginning of March in Malaga, Spain, as the final preparation for the SA World Cup.

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