Just as you are getting over the excitement of Round One at Fort William, not even a week passes and the ship had sailed and climbed a few mountains, taking us deep into the valleys of the Dolomites for the second round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Val di Sole! Aptly named, the valley of the sun was, fingers crossed, going to bless us with glorious weather leaving us with golden tans, but no one expected it to be this hot...expect sunburnt toes and weeks of cleaning out the downhill dust in the nose! Val di Sole - Round 2... it’s going to be a hot one!
Photography & Words: Laurence Crossman-Emms // www.laurence-ce.com
Coming off the eye-watering drive from Fort William, the first thing you want to do is have a sit down and enjoy the sunshine, but unfortunately ,there is no time for that. Arriving early in the morning, a slight bit of kip and your back at it, re-erecting the pits that you put down only two days ago at the last race, unpacking the brimming vans of all the bikes, gear and supplements needed for a week of World Cup racing. The not so glorious side to professional mountain biking. Within no time though the awnings were up, pizza was ordered and a moment to yourself to enjoy the scenery. Situated in the dip of the valley, the small Italian town of Commezzadura is surrounded by vast, towering mountains and rocky peaks for as far as the eye can see; it sure was a sight you grow very fond of. But this isn't the time to enjoy the view...rally up the troops, track walk time now -no rest for the wicked!
Riding the eight man gondola to the middle of mountain, and sat a little down hill from the station is the drop-in gate : A start that will make for some exciting action. Dropping steep out of the gate and into the forest below, the track is made of rocks and roots of all shapes and sizes, covered in a nice thick layer of dusty loam. With a few alterations to last year, the main premise of the track was the same : steep and very technical, something that was right up Phil Atwill's street - anything technical and fast he loves. You could see him getting excited about the thought of riding his bike down it. Even though the rest of the team seemed quietly confident, everyone knew it was a game of hit it fast and hit it smooth, with the winner going to be the one who puts it all in and hits the right lines. Which wasn't going to be easy considering that this isn't a track that stays the same, it will be interesting to see the track come race day!
A few set up changes to be had on the bikes for this round. Taking off the fast rollers from Fort William and opting for cut-down spikes, team mechanics, Alex and Martyn had their work "cut" out. That, along with a few suspension alterations and stem, bar, stack heights and the bike swere good to roll for practice. Phil's professional choice to shave his legs and the team were set. Due to this round of the World Cup being a triple treat round, DH, 4X and XC all in one, the schedule was bit dragged out. Practice on Thursday, followed by Qualifying on Friday, short practice on Saturday ,rolling into racing on Sunday, it was going to be a long week, but no one was complaining - it wasn't raining!
Thursday practice session, and going again with the split format with two groups, the track soon saw some fresh rubber beating it up. Just as everyone thought, it didn't take long for the top layer of loamy dirt to be washed away, leaving newly exposed rocks and roots all over the shop. Almost everyone you saw, spoke of how much the track changes every single run, not that the line you are riding has an extra root or a hole in it, but the line you have doesn't even exist any more. You really had to be on the ball and choose your route wisely, spending time to watch other riders, but also get enough runs in to feel at one with the track. Thursday practice went down well with no real dramas, with further bike alterations and catching up with mechanicals and repairs from the week before, all seemed rocking for qualifying….
...but just when you turn your back, the mischievous team that is Sam Dale and Josh Bryceland are on the case. These two, when together can be a right pair and find any opportunity to have some fun! Finding a dead snake down by the river, the two thought it would be good banter to put it into team mechanic, Martyn's toolbox, Martyn being a vegetarian. Concealed inside whilst he was away washing bikes, Martyn returned to a silent pits where no one looked suspicious...not at all! Joe Bowman of "This is Peaty" poised with his camera to snap the reaction, we all sit and watch as he rummages through his tools only to find a snake in there! Never seen Sam so excited, howling away and running about, it wasn’t long until the thought of another one..."Lets stick it inside one of the porta loos!"....which also got a few laughs!
Qualifying day came around and it was time to put your game face on. A short morning practice to get familiar with a track that was going to change again come qualifying and time to sweat out the whole contents of your body in the sweltering heat. It was no day to go and have a have a silly off. Which seemed to be just the thing in store for Harry Molloy. Loosing it on a small compression before a steep section, it saw him quickly chest bumping the stem, resulting in a spectacular over the bars...to awkward shapes...to a few rolls down the dusty hillside. More awkwardly for him, there is a camera pointing at him the whole time. Winding himself a little with a few bumps and scrapes, he was able to carry on and see it through to Qualifying...not before a little lie down in the pits.
A good day of qualifying for the team, saw everyone through to the next stage of racing. Already secured Junior rider, Phil Atwill, saw himself put down a blinding run, winning his seeding and gaining the "last man down" status come Sunday. Manon also stepped up to this gnarly track, setting herself a third place qualification behind Ragot and Rachel. Even after his crash, Harry was still able to secure a position on race day with a 30th place qualifier, just pipped by team mate Sam Dale who went 28th with a 0.2second gap. A solid set of results for the team - it will be interesting to see who can pull it off come Sunday.
With the stretched out schedule taking a bit of a toll on the riders after two weeks of solid racing, Saturday almost came as a bit of a rest. Another short morning practice was all that was on the cards for the DH today. Which meant that it gave everyone a bit of an afternoon off. Finishing at midday, riders were seen all over, chilling out in the pits, enjoying the sunshine, catching some lunch or an ice cream...it was a welcome break to the week. Having qualified first, Phil was in good spirits and spent his afternoon, skateboarding around the pits and taking a refreshing dunk in the glacier-fed river that ran through Commezzadura. Early dinner and a good sleep, ready for racing tomorrow!
Sunday came around and it saw a huge influx of spectators and fans, driving to this small town to get involved with the World Cup. It really is the biggest event of the year around these parts and draws a crowd from far and wide. With easy access from the neighboring countries and a train station outside the gondola, the fanssoon did pour in! Morning practice gave a great opportunity for the crowds to start lacing the trackside, armed with horns and bangers! Once again the typically Italian schedule threw a spanner in the works with a gap of up to six hours for some riders between practice and racing. A bit of a long time to be sat around patiently waiting to put it all on the line. Trying to stay relaxed and keep out the sun, riders were keen to start coming down the hillside.
Racing finally started and with the temperature reaching heights of 40degrees- it was going to be some smoking hot racing! Prepped and warm at the top of the hill, Phil was looking to get this one in the bag and secure himself his first World Cup win. Coming down the hill last for the Juniors, Phil was only able to grab himself a second place being just outdone by Australian rider Dean Lucas by 0.16 second, a margin that was sickeningly close, especially when third place was only 0.02seconds behind that : Junior racing this weekend was tight! Manon had it tough this round, not feeling so confident on this track, she knew she was going to need to pull a special one to podium. Thinking she was going to be able to secure it with a steady, smooth run, she was outdone and was only able to put down a seventh place, which was a shame after her amazing performance at Fort William. The dusty, dry track was not a similar sight to the ones seen in wet, muddy Wales!
Elite men were also looking to have some tight racing, with qualifying times looking like child's play after the first ten men had come down. Sam and Harry had it cut out for them. Dropping into a completely different track once again to the mornings practice, you really had to be on the ball about your line choice and ability to spot where things could trip you up and lose time. The track was difficult, a track that saw even the most seasoned riders like Beaumont, Hill and Macdonald all take spills. Harry was able to put down a storming run for himself of 3:25.37 which put him into a tidy 25th place finish. A result which both Harry and team manager Will Longden were pretty stoked about. Sam Dale dropped in and after having a pretty conservative run, with no offs or big mistakes,was only able to put down 34th, a result which Sam knows is not a true reflection on his ability. Openly disappointed with his run, Sam retired to the pits, but with a trip to Europe booked, he will be looking to come off the back off some serious bike riding and put down some solid results.
Gracing the second tier of the podium, Phil stands tall and takes it all in. Happy with his result, and with the team having further space to improve on, they will all be looking forwards to Round Three in Andorra, but also the British National and British Champs races in-between. Home time, and with the inevitable 20 hour drive home, everything was packed away in record time, and the road was hit! Roll on the homeland for a well-deserved break after three weeks of flat-out bike racing.
Photography & Words: Laurence Crossman-Emms // www.laurence-ce.comMadison.cc Saracen.co.uk