The Black Snake is a boa constrictor to the brain for most riders, even with a modicum of consistency of conditions. A track wider and rougher than any other, even a couple of seasons ago when this iteration of the course was first conceived, it is now almost completely devoid of any comforting loam; more eroded and savage than ever. Throw in one gratuitously violent storm for qualies and then pour two or three hours more heavy rain on top and no amount of muscle could save you from the wrestle with the kind of slippery python that reared its ugly head. From that point, it became a thinking man's race, a jigsaw with great boulder-sized puzzle pieces that to all but most bicycle-astute, just did not fit well together.
Riders were left with the biggest head-scratcher of the season so far; how to approach race day on a track that had destroyed their confidence and weathered their mettle so badly. As the Italian sun heated the ground back up, the grip was surely returning to the most treacherous sections, but to what extent? Few could be sure, but four riders got it exactly right; the first time winners in each category. Mille Johnset took her maiden victory for team Atherton and Norway, leading out a bewildered Vali Holl. Kiwi junior, Tuhoto-Ariki Pene, as much a surprise to himself as anyone else, found himself on the top step ahead of another unfamiliar face, Zak Gomilscek of Slovenia. Meanwhile, in the women's race, Marine Cabirou brought the French revolution over to the women's field with a colossal virgin win of over 11 seconds. Cabirou's growth in skill and confidence is absolutely plain to see, with or without three of the biggest female names present, even finding time for style on the finish jump.
The near-unrideable conditions of men's qualifying yesterday had bordered on the farcical and although blue skies prevailed, the start order was in disarray. To some riders all the change had clearly burrowed far too deep inside their heads, wreaking irreparable damage and with no chance of restoring the shattered trust in time. For Laurie Greenland, that was not the case and following a rip-roaring display of superiority on the most challenging course on the circuit, victory was his by a sizeable 2.8 seconds. Always capable of a breath-taking charge down the gauntlet, Greenland came into the race with the formidable CV of a second-place here in 2018 and a silver medal at the 2016 World Champs. The completely ecstatic and almost speechless winner was able to explain the combination of brains and brawn he used to wrap this one up, even using some special lines his dad had suggested from the walk they made together three years before. We now look ahead to Switzerland and the final rounds of the series, hoping for a little more of the same crazy drama. It's all we know in this business after all.