At the last race in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, it rained, it poured, and we all thought it was all over. It looked like we were in store for Lourdes 2.0; a damp squib of a race. And then out of nowhere, Jack Moir turned the tables on Mother Nature, finding race speed where others had failed before him. He put the scares on his teammate Dean Lucas who was sitting pretty in the hot seat after completing his run in fairer weather earlier on. Moir set his rivals at the top of the mountain something to aim for, but would they be able to do any better? Shaw, Hart, Minnaar, Bruni, all took to the river-like track. None of them were able to come close, and Minnaar lost valuable points in the process after going off track in the slippery conditions, eventually succumbing to a disqualification. Was it going to be Lucas's day?
One rider. One solitary figure up top, was the final challenger. The Starbucks-loving American took to the track and it wasn't long before the timing screens were being lit up in green. It looked like Gwin was doing the impossible and actually gaining time on the rain-soaked track. He managed to keep it all together, few mistakes, no mechanicals, just pure speed and determination. He crossed the line, the crowd was screaming, and his fellow riders were in awe of what had just happened. With just over a second between him and Lucas, Gwin had laid down one of the most incredible runs in the history of mountain biking, worthy of mention alongside Danny Hart's legendary Champéry Worlds run in 2011. Another legendary tale from the historic Mont-Sainte-Anne track.
In the Elite Women's race earlier in the day, and in fairer conditions, we saw a victorious Seagrave conquer a track where she hadn't ever had much luck... until now. Nicole played it safe and didn't drop the final jump into the finish line (not surprising after suffering a big crash there before), but secured second place. Meanwhile, Hannah looked like she was on a roll but a flat tire towards the end of her race left her in third place. Switzerland's on-form Siegenthaler took fourth, ahead of save-of-the-century Atherton by a small margin, but a margin nevertheless.
After one of the most challenging races for years, we wondered whether things could get any more dramatic, but then again this weekend we are heading to one of the most revered downhill mountain bike race tracks on the current circuit, perhaps even in the history of the sport; Val di Sole.
This track is a mean beast. It takes no prisoners, and that's why with just a few points separating the top riders in Elite Men and Women for the final fight for the overall 2017 World Cup crown, this weekend is going to be an edge-of-your-seat race.
Named the Black Snake, the downhill World Cup track at Val di Sole is one of the most technically demanding tracks seen on the World Cup calendar. Starting at a height of 1,400m, the the Black Snake descends 600m to the finish line, with an average gradient of 22%, with up to 40% in some sections. That might seem okay at normal speeds but at race speed over a terrain covered in angry looking roots and hidden boulders, it's something else.
Although one of the most gruelling tracks around, the riders seem to love it; from the fast flowing section at the start, into a road gap and jumps, the track heads into the the woods. Here, in the dappled light, riders uncover a host of rocks and roots. Like threading the eye of a needle, this section of the track requires exquisite precision, strength, and persistence. Since last year, which saw Val di Sole host the World Champs, the track has been modified slightly, with the addition of a few more turns before the final section of track begins. Before the finish line, riders reach 'The Hell'. This section hasn't been changed at all; a wall of rocks and roots just before the Pippo Jump (named after the trail designer). This track is the essence of downhill racing at its finest.
The 2016 Worlds at Val di Sole was a humdinger of a race. Red flags were foisted left, right, and center as rider after rider crashed on the blown out, dusty Italian track. Val di Sole has a history of being rough as hell, but last year it reminded us what that really meant.
In Elite Men, we saw the likes of Tom Bersselaar (huge crash and KO'd), Eliot Jackson (crash and stretchered off), Dean Lucas (through the tapes at the boulder section), Brook MacDonald (sideways over the rocks and into spectators), Loris Vergier (slips off bike in rock garden), Johannes Fischbach (crash and no front brake to the finish line), and Loïc Bruni (flat tyre) all come a cropper in the finals. It was Danny Hart who secured the benchmark time which put him in the hot seat ahead of his teammates Laurie Greenland and Florent Payet. With just two riders to go, could Danny clinch another gold World Champs medal? Troy Brosnan was up next and the splits showed he was 2.8s back. It wasn't going to be his day, but what about Gwin, could he get that elusive World Championship win? History tells us it wasn't his day, dropping 1.5s back in the early stages, then landing heavily on a hidden boulder, ripping his rear tyre off its rim. His race was over, and Danny Hart was duly crowned the 2016 Champion.
In the Elite Women's race, Rachel Atherton topped off an incredible 2016 season by taking her fourth World Championship gold medal. Atherton, despite making a mistake in the woods, crossed the line three seconds up on Myriam Nicole, who had sat in the hot seat while the likes of Seagrave and Hannah tried to beat her time. Carpenter, who had qualified in second place the day before, had a massive crash on the first big left-hand turn. She walked away but had to look on as her compatriot Atherton, last on track, took the win, the gold medal, and the rainbow jersey.
If you want to watch the race in person, tickets cost €15 and include access to the race, the pits, the expo area, and the grandstands. The ticket also includes a lift pass for the gondola. Children under eight years of age get free admission. If you want to upgrade, a two-day VIP ticket, which gives you access to the VIP area (including catering service), reserved seating in the grandstands, and reserved parking, as well as everything else a normal ticket gives you will set you back €150. The ticket is valid for both the Downhill and XC race the following day. You can get your tickets in person by visiting the Daolasa ticket office
The points on offer for the final weekend are: 1st = 200 (50), 2nd = 160 (40), 3rd = 140 (30), 4th = 125 (25), 5th = 110 (22), and so on (points for qualifying in brackets). For full details see page 65 in the UCI Cycling regulations
Fresh off the hill from Crankworx Whistler, Pinkbike will be providing you with the best daily coverage from our hardworking team of photographers in Val di Sole this week. There’ll be the usual stunning photo epics from practice on Thursday, qualifying on Friday, and finals on Saturday, as well as tech reports and WynTV throughout the weekend. View the full rundown of the racing schedule
For the Elite Women and Elite Men finals, you can watch the action live on Pinkbike via Red Bull TV, or via a local broadcaster (e.g. The Bike Channel in the UK) from 13:00 local time/CEST on Saturday 26th August (12:00 BST // 04:00 PDT // 07:00 EDT // 21:00 AEST // 23:00 NZST).
/ @natedh9 / @paulaston