We already knew it would be a new track in Andorra. The venue had held a Catalan Cup only a few weeks prior to test the new course and we’d already done as much homework as possible, watching all the head cams and probing the guys who ventured over there to race it for intel on what the expect and how best to have the bikes prior to arriving.
KJ spent some time in Champéry in between the rounds, which gave her some chance to do some riding outside of the tape. Something that punters might take for granted in the middle of the race season. It also gave us a chance to completely strip her bike and refresh all the bearings in the frame. Something that we’d already done to the rest of the team bikes before Leogang.
KJ is much more gentle on her bike than the lads. Not because she isn’t riding hard, oh no no no. Just because she seems to exude finesse. That being said, it was good to delve into the guts of the bike and see what the season’s abuse had done to it. All told, she could have easily continued with the same bearing and been fine. But given that it’s best to keep the bikes in prime condition for racing, the frame was in pieces and our hands were dirty, we swapped out the bearings and gave the bike the dream, ready for the Andorran dust.
With neither KJ nor Douglas having ridden this new track, we were in the same process again come track walk, but this time with a bit more studying going on to suss out the track and see where the lines were. Sometimes tracks offer themselves to multiple line choices and sometimes they just give you one clear option. Andorra's new track was more the latter, but the speed on that one line was looking a bit mind boggling. It was also already covered in three inches of dust, and that’s before any practice had begun.
Bike setup from Leogang, through Lenzerheide to Andorra didn’t change by a huge amount. Often it isn’t big drastic changes from race to race that are needed. It’s more in the multiple subtle tweaks that you find the necessary marginal gains to make the difference. That’s something we focussed on with the DH bike - having a solid foundation of a bike to begin with while having subtle adjustments either side of that base. It keeps the same familiar flavor of bike there throughout, but gives you the tools to tweak it to suit that week’s race track, conditions and mental environment.
While Lenzerheide was a bit fresh in the mornings, Andorra was well up to temperature. Practice rolled around and it was very separate tales for KJ and Douglas. KJ was loving it, visibly bouncing around and enjoying riding her bike. She was ticking the features off a lot faster in the practice session, and this track had many big jumps and drops to hit.
Douglas on the other hand came down with his eyes on stalks. It was a fast track, and something that most of the UK lads were having to adjust to, fast. There aren’t many places in the UK where you can hit 60kph on a bike, let alone for a good few minutes. We don’t need to mention the lack of dust in the UK, but that was also throwing in further challenges as the bike moved around at speed in the dust and caused problems with visibility as it lingered in the air. Nevertheless, Douglas cracked on and despite him saying that he wasn’t feeling so good, reports from trackside were saying otherwise.
Back round again in the blink of an eye to qualification, and by God I was glad to have an ebike. Given the mess in organization, riders needed to pedal up a mountain pass road to get to the lift. So the tow in each morning helped them keep a bit fresher and sweat just that tiny bit less as the temperatures soared. Something that we touched on with Lenzerheide, but with this extreme heat it wasn’t just necessary to keep an eye on pressures as the day went on, but also to adjust the suspension due to the oil inside becoming ever so slightly thinner with the heat.
We got Douglas warmed up, both physically and mentally, and everything just seems to seamlessly move from one process to the other. We mentioned that we were working on having him come out of the gate harder to overcome that slow start to the first split that we were seeing. And it seemed to have worked, he was 5th at the first split. He continued on well before disaster struck with a puncture half way down, scuppering his chances of qualifying. He took it on the chin like a wise man and took away the positives of riding so well despite struggling early on in practice with the speed and deep dust. Some things are in our control, and Douglas calmly understood that this one was out of his control.
KJ dropped in next, looking to continue forward with another clean run. She’s had a rough previous day and morning’s practice as she’d gone down on the same side as she did in her big crash in Lourdes. It re-aggravated her hematoma which swelled up and went all colors of a tartan rug. But she’s a damn tough cookie and was up at the top getting warmed up for her race run, with that same focus that she’d had in Lenzerheide - a calm and clean run. Her new warm up routine upped the intensity and actually sought to not only warm her up, but actually burn off some of the nerves that can pop up before a big performance.
She dropped in and completed another cool and calm run that was devoid of any crashes. And while not making the cut for qualifying, she took away a lot of positives from the Andorra round, building further on her plan to find the right processes to figure this World Cup racing thing out. She also took away a lot of areas to work on, one of the big ones being getting more comfortable with big jumps. It’s often easy to forget that it’s KJs second only year racing World Cups, and a lot of the features are the biggest that she’s ever hit. Her crash in Lourdes is still there lingering in her mind and with the added pressure of the clock, it can tip her just over the edge of comfort come race time, despite riding so well in practice. More comfort in the air and confidence to hit the big features on the first run gives her more time to focus on the technical areas of the track.
Unfortunately, Andorra was the first time that we’d had no one in the final. It was a weird feeling, but one that we see not only fires the racers up for the next round, but also fires us up at RAAW to search for more tools in setup, research and focus to help the racers out and give them all the chances possible to perform to their best.
The back to back rounds of Lenzerheide and Andorra were another two stops in the wild rollercoaster ride of DH racing. It at times feels like a learning wall, let alone a curve. But that’s why we’re here, to learn. We’ve seen what our bikes are capable of and tasted the sweet taste of success in Fort William. It’s addictive, as any racer can tell you, and it’s something that we want again. While you might see your favorite teams and riders at the top week in week out, it’s perhaps easy to not see the constant struggles that everyone who shows up to a World Cup goes through. So when it all comes together it’s a feeling like nothing else.
Next we’re off to the USA, to a land where bigger is better, and to a venue that has delivered edge of the seat racing action every time the World Cup circus has gone there. We’re looking forward to the North American rounds and to what they will bring for the 555 team.