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1st/3rd June 2012 - World Cup #2 Val Di Sole, Italy


I've just had 2 long months of very intense university commitments involving extended periods of revision, sometimes reaching 10 hours a day, dissertation and other project work, and also the final exams. At 12.45 on the Monday afternoon before the Val Di Sole World Cup I walked out of my last ever Optometry masters exam free at last. Four years down the line all the hard work has paid off and its finally finished. And just in time for the World Cup racing season to really kick off again. Fortunate in the sense that I get to join in with racing, unfortunate in that everyone else has been doing lots of racing and training, and I've been spending all my time thinking about eyes.

I have very fond memories of Val Di Sole from 2012. I qualified 12th, then rode really well in my race run apart from a big over the bars crash half way down, to still finish in 39th place. It was at the end of the season so I was in good shape and riding with confidence. However crashing out in the race run reminded me that to compete at the top of this sport intensive training in preparation for these big events is mandatory. This year with Val Di Sole being immediately after a period during which I've done very little apart from study, I didn't really know what to expect from myself in terms of a result. I did know I couldn't wait to go and ride the track again and a top 40 sounded realistic going off last year.

Due to circumstances out of my control I was heading to Val Di Sole on a new bike acquired via the kind and much appreciated assistance of my suspension sponsor MOJO – great guys if you ever need a Fox fork or rear shock looking at they will do a great job! I'd ridden this bike a few times before heading out for the World Cup and felt like I was starting to settle into it very well and was looking forward to putting it to test on this awesome track!

valdisole bikeMe and Dad did the usual crazy journey. 18 hours driving time, 1100 miles and I knew very little of it to be honest. I tend to sleep through most of it in the back of the van! I should probably mention the comical series of events which us privateers or solo racers and our support teams (usually dedicated parents and family) have to go through when we arrive at a World Cup. First we have to struggle to explain to a man at the gate, stubbornly guarding the entrance to the venue, and speaks no English, that you are an athlete and need to park and put up the gazebo. Then they will ask which team you are in, and when you say you are not in a team, they promptly and abruptly tell you to go away... anywhere... as long as it is away. In Val Di Sole it turned out 'day parking for riders' was 4km up the road.... that's a long pedal to change your tyre pressure! Then you spend 5 minutes trying to trick them and confuse them so you can get in, before desperately trying to locate a free piece of grass with enough space for a tent and a van, which is usually off in a corner somewhere. But then the next issue is that you're in, but if you leave in your vehicle to go to your B&B, how the hell do you get it back in again?? Well in Val Di Sole we all found a sneaky back entrance to the field we had located, otherwise it would be begging and trickery each morning. I tell you, you spend more time worrying about being allowed to set up your pit at these events, than you do about actually racing the bike! Why is it so difficult for the UCI and event organisers to arrange something for privateers? After all without us, who make up the bulk of the field, and pay our own way to attend and compete, would there be such a good event??

Friday practice started very well for me. I was enjoying the track and after 4 practice runs I had most of my lines dialed in. Tyres were a Schwalbe Wicked Will on the front and Big Betty at the rear and I was having lots of fun. There were a couple of new sections at the top which were fresh forest floor at the start of practice. However as the day went on big roots and rocks came out to meet us and started claiming riders and bikes. The bike was going amazingly well and everything was feeling very comfortable and playful. Lines I'd seen in previous years but couldn't manage because I was too busy wrestling the bike during the set up phase, I was hitting no problem this year and flying out of them. Everything felt much easier.

val di sole sitting in tentAfter a lunch break and some rest I headed up at the start of timed practice with a helmet camera and microphone attached, loaned to me by videographer George Milner. The Drift camera mounts on well to the goggles, and is very stable if you add some tape to get it at the right angle and keep it in the same place. If you tape the microphone onto the inside of the face guard of the helmet it stays out of the wind and gets good quality audio. I had decided to try to do a full timed practice run while commentating on the track the whole way down. In the first rock garden I clipped a foot on a rock which spat me sideways and I came to a stop off the bike but still holding my handlebars. After getting going again I had a good run and made a good effort of chatting away the whole way down. The video is within this report if you want to see what the Val Di Sole track is like from a rider's perspective.

I did one more timed practice run which went really well until the very bottom where I lost the back wheel and ended up crashing. My two times were pretty good even with the crashes so I was feeling confident for a comfortable qualifying session as long as nothing went wrong. After practice we headed up the track to do a course walk to check out how all the lines had changed with all the wheels wearing it away throughout the day. It really was a bomb site in places with massive holes, roots and rocks exposed and right in the way. There was no other option but to plow over or through them.

Qualifying day is very stressful. With this being my third year on the circuit I know that if I have a good run I will qualify. However there is always that worry in the back of your mind – what if I crash, what if I find a rock at an awkward angle and get a flat tyre, what if something goes wrong with the bike. These are all things that I have to put out of my mind before the run. Everyone has different techniques for getting themselves in the right mind set for qualifying. I simply give myself permission to fail, which means I don't worry or stress about the chance of something going wrong and having to go home early, and I remind myself constantly that I'm here to ride my bike and have fun doing so, because the pressure you're under makes this so easy to forget. Usually this keeps me calm until I get in the start gate, then I'm relaxed when I hit the first corner and ready to enjoy it.

val di sole qually finishI did three practice runs in the morning and things felt really good by the end of the session. I'd picked my spots on the track that I knew I was feeling really confident with and could smash, and also those places which were a bit loose, and needed to be ridden with a little more care for the all important qualifying run. Race runs are always a bit of blur, but from what I can remember my qually run was smooth and fast with no mistakes. After qualifying 12th last year I deliberately held some back for the race tomorrow as I didn't want to put myself under that excessive pressure again for the final. I placed in 45th with a time of 3.36 which was only about 6 seconds off top 10 and I knew I had that left in me, so I was really happy with how things were going. We watched the end of qualifying to see how the other Brits would get on. Young George Gannicott who I'd done a practice run with in the morning rode amazingly well considering it was his first world cup. He had to come down right at the end when the track was completely different and he'd not ridden for about 5 hours, and was really unlucky to finish in 83rd place, only 0.2 of a second off the top 80 and qualification.

We left it too late to walk the track that evening, so decided to do it in the morning. One of the joys of being a privateer is that the health of your bike is your own responsibility. Most of the time I like this and wouldn't have it any other way, however at the end of two days riding, and all the stress of qualifying day, fixing broken wheels and bleeding rear brakes which fade on you in your qually run (I forgot to mention that!) whilst trying to rest and get some recovery time is not easy. I felt tired when I went to bed, but struggled to sleep much throughout the night after all the stress of the day.

If there was one thing I learnt from the experience of the Val Di Sole World Cup last year, it was that my fitness or in this case lack of it, whilst doing my degree, was to be a huge limiting factor on my riding towards to the end of a long weekend on probably the roughest, hardest track on the circuit. This year was to be no different, as I walked out of my last masters exam on Monday having spent the last 2 months with my head in books. So when I woke up on the morning of the race I was not surprised that I felt exhausted. It didn't help that I had a knackered brand new race wheel after doing only one run on it in qualifying.

val di sole jumpAfter a course walk in the morning and a stressful visit to Mavic, I went up to get practice started. I knew I was tired and stressed out, but rode well until half way down. I then proceeded to hit the middle rock garden faster than I have before, partly because my mate Matt Simmonds was following me and I still ride like I have something to prove when someone of Matt's ability is behind me (I've got to stop doing that!), so when I came out of it I was thrown onto a different line, lost control and crashed, big style! I went head first straight into a boulder and thanks to a great ONeal helmet and a strong neck I was ok - just. Unfortunately I somehow managed to get my right middle finger caught between my head and the boulder and squashed it. I got up and threw the bike to the side of the track and took my glove and helmet off, feeling my finger swelling up. I thought I'd broken it at first, so I decided to get back on the bike and get down as quickly as possible before it stiffened up and I couldn't ride. Thankfully after icing it initially, then periodically dipping it in the freezing cold fresh spring in the field we were in, the swelling stayed down and I kept pretty well full movement. It wasn't broken I'd just bruised it – lucky!

However the crash had completely destroyed my ONeal helmet, which did a great job of protecting my head as that was fine! So after gathering myself and getting my spare helmet out, it was up again for another practice run before the all important race. I tried to get back into the rhythm I'd had all weekend, but the crash had shaken me up and was I was finding it difficult to really let go. I'd taped my middle finger, which was damaged, to my third to help me grip the bars. After the crash I had to come down and build a fresh rim onto my rear race wheel, and do a full bike check-over, including changing my outer gear cable which involved wrestling internal cable routing, all in about 2 hours. I managed it with help from my Dad. After some food and getting in gear for racing, I headed up to do the business.

val di sole happy qually finishI wasn't at the top long before my run. I like it this way as hanging out at the start getting stressed is not good. So after a quick warm up it was GO time! I felt like my run was good – better than qualifying so when I came through the finish I expected to see a 3.30 or something around that. However to my extreme disappointment I'd actually gone one second slower than qualifying with a 3.37. Initially I just couldn't understand what had gone wrong.

After heading back to the tent and thinking through everything I started to realise what had happened. I'd started the weekend strong and riding aggressively. Then thanks to my lack of World Cup race fitness and the big crash in the morning, I'd slowed down. That's two World Cups in a row this season I finished in the race behind my qualifying position, after doing a steady qualifying run, then going for it in the race, and initially not understanding why. Now I'm free from university commitments, it's a priority to work on my fitness. I'm also going to work on my practice strategy for the next few races starting at Fort William this weekend, so that I get to the race run on Sunday as fresh as possible. All in all a successful weekend, qualified again and riding well on the new bike. Now 4 days' rest then the Fort William World Cup starts on Friday!

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