Mid-season can be a funny period. The pause after Leogang gave us time to return to normal life a little before the next block of racing began. That pause gives you a chance to breathe and decompress from the highs and lows of racing. But it can be very easy to relax for too long and ever so slightly lose touch of that focus. It takes determination and motivation to keep the steam train chugging forwards.
It’s also been a slightly different period for the team. Ryan’s crash in Leogang registered him out of racing for a while, so we knew he wouldn’t be at Lenzerheide. Luke’s concussion in Champéry also needed some time to heal and we all tentatively watched that recovery and we’re happy to see the day he got back on the big bike to put in some training runs before he came out to Switzerland. But that ever so cruel mistress of luck struck again and a crash left him with a dislocated shoulder and no chance to be fit for Lenzerheide.
That meant we were down to a smaller unit for the fourth round of the World Cup series. But like we mentioned earlier, we kept that focus on the task in hand sharp, despite missing having our fallen team members around us. KJ and Douglas were raring to go and over the moon to be in shorts instead of rain coats, Douglas already sporting a prominent t-shirt tan from his prior week’s riding in Morzine. That meant Mark, team manager, Dad and personal mechanic, had the lovely job of a full strip down to see how much of Morzine was left in the bike. Turns out sealed pivots are a genius idea and a great way to keep the mud where it should be, on the hill side. The rest of his bike was fighting fit and was ready for practice in no time.
Lenzerheide has been heavily criticized in the past, with riders being outspoken about not liking the track. There’s always a certain amount of homework that we do prior to a race. Watching previous race coverage and head cam footage, going back through the critical sections and looking at how best to have the bikes set up, chatting with the riders about their previous experiences at the rounds. But the Lenzerheide we arrived to had some pleasant surprises for us up its sleeve.
Fresh sections of track are always a welcome sight, and Lenzerheide sported a particularly big chunk of brand spanking new zone to ride in. I say zone, as tyres had never touched this section of forest before. It was interesting to watch many a racer spent almost too much time assessing the minutia of the fresh sections, knowing that once a few hundred riders had dragged themselves down it, it would be a whole different ball game. So the studying on this track was a long game. It was also welcome to see some discreet taping changes that took what once might have been closer to awkward and morphed it into something much easier to flow through.
The other big change was that it was baking hot. Well, once the sun had made it up over the picturesque Swiss peaks that surround the small mountain town.
After an initial panic and some friendly help to tow her over all the major gaps on course, practice was going well for KJ. It’s all too easy for the intimidating features to get the better of you, only to then wonder what all the fuss was about as you’re sailing over them. Simply said. But simple doesn’t mean easy.
Douglas set about racking up an expensive practice session by obliterating three chainrings, two Ochains and two chains on the same rock gap. Once he’d done enough damage, he switched plans and carried on with cranking up the speed and figuring out the new sections.
We all then went back up during A practice and timed training to continue the studying and fine tune where the riders were going on the constantly changing new sections of course, as well as the more established bits of track.
Before you know it you’re already at qualifying day. The mornings in Lenzerheide start off very cold. It’s quite high up and we were close to 3 degrees at the top in the mornings before the sun's rays poked over the hill and warmed everything up. That made for some drastic changes in the way the tyres, suspension and body worked as the temperature increased. So it was paramount to keep an eye on how the bike warmed up and maintain the desired pressures to keep everything as we wanted it.
Douglas was out for qualifying first, and came down with a good run to go into 15th place. He always tends to start off slow and gradually get faster as the run progresses, something that we’re working on. Despite a big mistake in the new off camber section, 15th was a top result and he was well inside the cutoff for the next day’s big show.
KJ was up an hour later, and she set about putting in place the important first building blocks to getting back to the level she knows she can be at. With many of her qualifying runs so far this season fraught with crashes, she just wanted to get a solid, but more importantly, clean run in under the pressure of the clock. And that’s exactly what she did. She finished the day 36 seconds away from qualifying, which is actually the closest that she’s ever been. While not qualify might seem like a huge negative, her run was full of positives to take and build on for the coming races.
KJ’s World Cup narrative is more that of a mental battle, something that may not be seen so clearly at the sharp end of the sport, but it’s something that every racer is dealing with. And through the lows that we encounter we learn the tools to climb out of that low to much better things. It was a particularly tough week for KJ, the anniversary of her Dad passing away was always front and center on her mind. Having a clean run and getting to the bottom without hitting the deck was her first solid stepping stone to build from to get back to the high of confidence that comes when you’re riding the way you want to. Sometimes riding the bike down the hill is the easy part.
Race days are an early start for the junior men, as they are the first ones out of the gate. Once again Douglas had denied us all of a lie in and we we’re back lake side prepping the bike for the pre-race practice while Douglas got warmed up. It’s only a brief spell of practice before it’s time to go up for the race run, and by that time it was baking again and we had a prime warm up spot overlooking the valley.
Douglas is pretty damn motivated in racing and he’d set his sights on a sub 3 minute run, knowing that it would likely ensure that he got in the top 10 - a personal aim of his. The beeps went off and he shot out of the gate and into the first loose left hander. As a race engineer, that might be all you see of a rider’s race run. We’re then glued to the live timing website, anxiously watching the ticking clock and waiting for the splits to appear while we ride the lift back down to the finish. He managed to knock 6.5 seconds off his qualifying run for a 3:05, which slipped him into a well earnt 14th place. That top 10 is creeping ever nearer, and the desire to be in it seems to burn a little brighter each time he isn’t.
While the juniors are the first to go, they’re also the first to finish. There wasn’t too much time to hang around, as the next round was starting just a few days later, over 1000km away in Andorra. So we watched the rest of the race and got packed up.