Verona... Colonised by the Romans in 89BC. The setting of Shakespeare's most famous play in 1591. An important strategic base of the Cold War until 1990. And last week, a place for team Pinkbike to eat gelato for dinner, on the way to World Cup Round 2, Val Di Sole. That’s right, over the hills and far away, 160km to be precise, men and women from across the world were making noises in the woods and it was our sorry job to find out who was gonna ride out on top.
Some downhill tracks are smooth and man-made, others unkempt and natural. Then there are twisted, dried-up, old lava flows that burp up rocks, like the one in question. Over the weekend a continual, ‘metamorphic metamorphosis’ was suffered by all, as the mutant course transformed itself a little uglier, with every rider passing.
A far cry from the serene streets of Verona... for some at least. Hundreds of innocents got chewed up and spat out by the revolting serpent beast that was this year’s Val Di Sole world cup track. Swap the Shakespearean ruffle for a neck-brace, my friend, this one’s a wild one.
And there was no hiding a dirty misdemeanor in these climbs. When a rider went down gently enough to get back up, they were set to smolder all the way down to the finish area as a marked man. And plenty did. Granted, to taste a win is to take risks while avoiding others simultaneously, but last weekend a collection of big names would fall foul of the balancing act and go home howling.
Val Di Sole is buried deep in the woods of Stellvio National Park. The atmosphere of being in the heart of the forest is thick when you’re on track, and the only escape from the mosquitoes is down the boulder coated labyrinth, until the sweet release and dazzling sunlight of the finishing area. Here we see a solitary male Brendog surveying a high-altitude area, prowling either for mates on heat or missing seconds amongst the knotted roots and ferns.
It would take a bare-knuckle boxing champ from a Russian labor camp to turn their nose up at the punishment on offer from this course. The amount of force channeled through components when they’re pointed down a so-called line here is breath-taking, as any high frame-rate video footage from the weekend can illustrate. Mick Hannah looks for the silk path in the upper quarter.
Pre-race is a time when the pressure can mount too high if you don't take steps. Aaron Gwin takes valuable chill time in his RV, while Atherton Snapchats kittens(?) and Mick gets an important trim. Haircuts are a curious pre-race ritual, but one hour before his race Mick was genuinely having his split ends manicured. You wouldn't think a slight mullet would cause that much drag, but it's the little things.
It was a great weekend for Specialized Racing. Luca Shaw (plate 244) tore up the juniors to place 3rd on the box, while Troy hammered into 5th in the mens. Gwin had a solid, but low profile entry one off the podium, just an out of place pine cone behind him.
Like a Tuscan Pinot Grigio, Josh ‘Miami Bryce’ Bryceland keeps getting better with time. His is a name not exactly synonymous with consistency, but maybe that’s because of his ‘all guns blazing’ riding style. The Bryce has been stealthily picking his way through the ranks these last few years and with his 3rd place in Val D’Isere last season it would be unwise to rule him out of anything. A familiarity with the podium hasn't blossomed as easily as predicted since coming of age, but more and more he's sniffing around the top ten looking to do damage. He kept the hotseat toasty for a long time at the weekend, then surrendered for 7th.
Trek mechanic, Monkey, is no stranger to a mangled bike carcass… Especially now that the Bulldog is spinning laps in Trek colors. A furious MacDonald came a cropper this time and even a weight saving, saddle-less dash to the line wasn’t gonna redeem the situation. Too loose.
7th, 2nd and 6th. For the last three years Hart's proven his understanding of this track, surely a dead cert to do well here, but he came unstuck…twice. After the disappointment of dropping off six spots for the final from his fastest qualifying time at Fort Bill, this last weekend’s errors will be tough to bear.
There’s plain old people and then there’s heroes. Eddy ‘Guerilla’ Masters is a hero in an open leather jacket, placing a sponsored-rider-embarrassing 26th on the day. Bernard Kerr is also a hero. 12th place for the upcoming Brit pinner is a formidable looking rank on this course. No fake. Who else… well obviously the man finding dignity in a vest made of sunburn and a filth silhouette is also a hero. Not to forget Florent Payent of Evil CK Racing, not pictured but with honors for a massive 8th position turn up.
The face of somebody about to hit the big time like a fat kid let loose on the piñata. Loic Bruni has snuck onto the podium once before, last season in the States. Here he climbed up one step higher, but in the eyes of anyone observing trackside it’s clear the Frenchman’ s about to unleash some terrifying potential on the world of bike riding.
Sam Hill arrived late for the party and was in no mood for cake. As the man who wrote the very book on getting loose, he’s well aware that when the rug gets pulled out it’s further and harder to fall, with all the more important points hemorrhaging out. Not every dog can have his day and this wasn't the one for the Australian terrier.
Greg Minnaar was stoked with his bronze-grade race, just one and a quarter seconds behind the Gee-man. A shady start, by his standards, at Fort William got laid to rest here on finals day. Be assured it’s out of his system and he’s ready to dance his Santa Cruz to the very top once again.
Stevie Smith came thundering down the mountain like an unchained gold miners cart, cavorting into the arena with a clenched fist and gritted teeth. Last year’s ultimate round champ was locked in for the win, all set to paint the town red and white, but had he done enough to stop the Atherton war machine? 3:12.2 later and he was slamming his glove to the ground in frustration. A single second can be too late in this fickle game.
Atherton was too damn good, all over again. A track with such markedly different requirements from racers and he still had it covered better than a shrink-wrapped halloumi in the fridge. Flawless bicycle riding with the fitness, skill and flair to boot, there’s nobody going to put a stick in Atherton’s spokes right now.
Thirty-two days stand between us and the next opportunity for rematch. Everyone's got their axe to grind as a new course in Andorra looms in the distance. For now it's the man in black and yellow keeping the pro classes awake at night.