Where do I even begin with Val Di Sole and 4X? Way back in 2008, the organisers spent €50,000 to fully sculpt a world-class 4X track for UCI Mountain Bike 4X World Champs. It has been used almost every year since then whether that be a UCI 4X World Cup or a 4X ProTour.
The Chaos Theory
Racing wise you just can't predict a winner here. Yes, there'll always be clear favourites but when push comes to shove, you can count on carnage. Whether that be riders taking each other out, moves out of nowhere or even the odd cutting of the course to get yourself a silver medal. as the below results show:
• 2016 World Champs - Mitja Ergaver
• 2017 World Champs - Felix Bekeman
• 2018 World Champs - Quentin Derbier
• 2019 World Champs - Romain Mayet
• 2021 World Champs - Tomas Slavik
Consider each rider like a marble and Val Di Sole track a tub. Drop all the marbles out of the tub onto the floor and they'll never finish in the same place.
Gone is the marble-like surface of years gone by, replaced with hard-packed dirt just 11 days ago to the cost of about 5,000. This changes the track dynamic massively, you used to be able to inside and drift like crazy or rail the outside and have plenty of grip. Pretty much the exact opposite of speedway, if you're struggling to get your head around the concept. Now there should be ample grip everywhere.
Out of the gate, you're right into some log rollers then 2 step-downs. If you're in gate one (inside) the second step-down gap is tiny. Gate 4 (outside) however is a fair distance. The philosophy behind it is from gate 4 you want to be absolutely hauling to rail the outside of turn one whereas gate 1 isn't necessarily the case.
Turn 1, a huge 180 right-hander. The reason it's so big? It allows for plenty of opportunity for passes. Inside-outside, high-low-high, high-low, etc. With the exception of the last turn, every corner is big and it makes for great racing.
Exiting turn in the hope you haven't been absolutely mullered by anyone else and it's into a tabletop. There's nothing much to the tabletop but when night comes that all changes. There seems to be a dead zone where none of the lights cover it. Again surviving turn 1 with three other riders is one thing but to then hit a table in complete darkness (For the photo nerds out there F1.4 ISO20,000 500th and still under-exposed). Pretty wild and something you won't notice and appreciate as a spectator.
Turn 2. a 180 left I describe as The Gaza Strip... years gone by it was an absolute abomination, with huge holes everywhere. Essentially just blown to bits, hence the description I give it. I once watched someone lead out a semi-final only to hit one of the dust-filed holes and wash out, no final for him then... Again resurfaced so we shall see how long that lasts.
There's a good bit of elevation drop out of turn 2 that you can pump before hitting a step up. The step up as 2 lines essentially, you can ride it normally (straight) and rail the right-hander that is turn 3, and by rail, I mean flat out! Alternatively, you could (skill depending) enter super far left and try and just miss the flag to dive onto the inside berm. A good 10-15 meters shorter and a berm that really holds you.
Exiting turn 3 you have a triple hip into the left-handed 180 of turn 4. With a massive pull and a boatload of speed, you can clear it as a triple but certainly one for those in the upper echelons. For the mere mortals, it'll be a low double to pump.
Onto the track split now where you have the Pro line on the right and non pro on the left. For the pro it's 2 double, the first of which is fairly easy to clear if not struggling to not over jump it. The second on the other hand is a totally different kettle of fish. It's massive and not only is it big, but to get a good line around turn 5 you have to jump as far left as you can to join onto where the none pro line ends. For the none pro line you have a simple set of 3 tables. Yes getting onto them is a little more difficult from the berm as you essentially have to come back on yourself, but you get the advantage of having a perfect line into turn 5.
Turn 5, the berm I will always remember as the berm Nate Parsons put someone through and sent a whole bunch of the crowd flying like skittles. Probably 25-30 foot tall, massive behemoth that is crucial for snagging a place or 2 in racing. you get this berm and the drive out of it right and every year you will catch someone napping.
Into the rock-garden and there's 3 main lines, you've got your Felix Bekeman huck line which basically kicks off a rock and clears a lot of it to then make another hop and you're through. You have the centre line which is most common and you have the right line which is a good bit smoother but considerably longer.
Down the final straight with a hop on hop off and round the last turn. Hope you don't get taken out over the bridge like that year Slavik lost out on world champs and that a complete run.
For the last few years now Val Di Sole has hosted the 4X World Champs and as good as that was, it meant things were extremely restricted. One of such restrictions was being selected to represent your country weeks or months in advance. This severely hampered entries and that became clear to see as practice rolled around. Names like Matt Walker, Joel Moore, Samuel Willimann and Noel Niederberger all making on-the-day entries.
Noel Niederberger is no rookie when it comes to racing 4X but it was clear the 2 teammates, Janis Lehmann and Constantin Reutsch he lead out, were.
Back in the day when Bernard Kerr was on a Millyard and Danny Hart was on a Lapierre racing downhill nationals in Junior, Bernard was also racing 4X Nationals. The reason I mention this, as I'm walking up the hill to start shooting I see someone on a Pivot with Kerr on the back of his jersey sat in the gate. My initial thoughts were "I wonder if that's Bardolph" his younger brother. Turns out it was Matt Walker, not a clue why he was in Bernards jersey but hey ho. Shall we say the first few runs were a little tentative doing trains with Joel Moore and a few others. Again though, it was nice to see others outside the sport of 4X turn up, get over the initial hurdles of a different riding style then evolve very quickly to scoping different lines, etc.
Another name new to the game, Kiwi, Caitlin Flavell. Racing the downhill in Juniours she thought she'd give it a go. A massive doff of the cap from me, to go from spending the day practicing one of the roughest downhill tracks in the world to then putting a stint in learning a new discipline, practising and then sending 2 quali' runs, bravo. She wasn't originally going to enter as she didn't have a "4X Bike" I quickly explained you can race 4X on pretty much any bike.
You know how I mentioned the second turn "Gaza Strip"? holy shit!!! one single deep hole soon appeared and as the riding went on it was just filled with dust. For some perspective, I watched a Swiss rider's front wheel hit it and he was almost ejected over the bars!
Right on queue it absolutely pissed down and though no rider likes getting soaked, it was welcomed. The ridiculously dusty track desperately needed it to keep it all together. 30 minutes later and it was all go time, every one had enough time for 1 quick run before Quali's.
As mentioned earlier having freedom due to not being World Champs means the organises of the 4X Pro Tour decided to run the event as a doubleheader. Round 6 on Friday night with the final round 7 on Saturday night. to make this happen, there are 2 qualifying runs, the first counts as your position for Friday's racing. The second is for Saturday's racing.
Nothing much to say about the first quail runs really. I mean that is if I totally overlook how quick Swiss rider Samuel Willimann looked. I mean the above image technically is abysmal but it was a grab shot. The reason I posted it is so you can see how banked over and railed he was. It's rare for me to be impressed, The fact I posted an image as bad as the above should give an indication as to my thoughts on his track speed.
The second runs tell a different tale for a few reasons. Firstly, a couple of riders, notably Matt Walker and Louise Ferguson, decided to only do the second quali run as they only wanted to race the Saturday night due to schedule conflicts. The other thing of note is the times. The difference between pro riders and normal folk is consistency. If an amateur was to ride a 45-second track, chances are the times would fluctuate +- 1 or 2 seconds, that's not the case for the quickest in the world. Take for example Scott Beaumont:
• Run 1 - 44.660
• Run 2 - 44.678
18 thousandths of a second difference.
Who Styled It Better?
For the second set of qualifying runs, I decided to throw caution to the wind and throw the fisheye on a monopod to shoot the triple into the 4th corner before the pro line.
Now for clarity, this gap is a MASSIVE
pull and clearing it was reserved for only the top riders. To throw some steeze then is fairly impressive and that's totally disregarding the fact that it's a qualification run against the clock.
So answers in the comments:
1. Scott Beaumont
2. Roberto Cristofoli
3. Stefano Dolfin
4. Dan Waggstaff
5. Samuel Willimann
6. Matt Walker