No one said DH racing was easy. Sometimes luck is on your side, and other times it jumps up and bites you without a moment's notice. In what already feels like a long time since we started, it’s easy to forget that this is only round three of the World Cup, and we’re still climbing the cliff-like learning curve. Leogang dealt us equal measures of good and bad luck, but one thing is for sure, no matter how hard the bad luck is to swallow, we’ll keep on charging forwards and loving the racing rollercoaster at every moment.
Leogang, the bike park race. Maybe that was true once upon a time, but my God it certainly isn’t true nowadays. It’s awkward, tight, technical and the bit that might be the closest to the bike park stereotype that is still too often affixed to Leogang isn’t a walk in the park either. Squashing jumps as hard as possible at close to 70kph is no joke. It’s very much a track of two halves, tight and awkward up top and steep and technical at the bottom. Those infamous woods, introduced for the 2020 World Championships, are simply wild. The track changes speed constantly too, fast flat out sections lead into much slower cruxes, which then in turn lead into more fast sections that will punish you with slow speed carrying from any mistakes made higher up.
Luckily this wasn’t the first time the team had been to Leogang. But while it wasn’t their first rodeo, Leogang is still a bucking bronco of a track. And that’s before we get to the volatile weather that can often grace the Alps in early summer.
We however rolled into mountain Germany with one team member less. Luke and Ryan had stopped off in Switzerland on the way to do some riding and test a couple of things out on the bike. Ryan was introduced to the glorious vert berms of Morgins and once Luke and his Dad Francis had arrived, the plan was to hit Champéry the next day. But, as we’ve mentioned, the weather in the Alps can be a bit wild at the start of summer. The sun’s intensity grows, warming the ground and sending moisture up into the atmosphere, creating some impressively big storms. But these UK lads aren’t made of sugar and set about lapping in the wild conditions. As the day progressed, the sun came back out and the track started to dry rapidly. As the conditions changed, one constant remained, Luke’s ferocious speed. Perhaps there’s only two speeds in his gearbox – off and flat out.
Running his front wheel over the top of one of the berms sent his bike flying down the hill and catapulted him head first into the next turn. We picked him up from the bottom of the track and rushed him off to the hospital to get checked out. The doctors were beyond thorough and concluded that everything on the inside was OK, but his amnesia gave them concern enough to keep him in overnight, just to be sure. It was so bizarre to sit with him, only to have him repeating the same questions every hour or so. He’d given his swede a damn good shake.
So with that, Luke and Francis chose to head back home to the UK and start Luke’s recovery. It’s a tough one knowing when the right time is to come back from a head injury. But Luke is militant with recovery and he listens to his body well. Here’s to a speedy but more importantly, full recovery mate. You’ve got so much career ahead of you that you might not see from your point of view. So here’s to not only coming back to the same place you left off, but surpassing it and climbing the ranks into the Top 20, somewhere that we all know you can be.
Rolling into Leogang we were greeted with wild rain. We were staying in a town literally called Rain, but come on. Setting the pits up in the wet is no fun. Luckily the 555 RAAW pits aren’t yet at the gargantuan size of some of the other teams. So after a quick hustle from team manager Mark and Roy, we had shelter for the week. But by a stroke of logistical luck, we were positioned right in the midst of the big teams, spending the week staring at single digit race plates. Maybe they were all looking at us thinking who the hell are these guys. But we were loving it.
We spent most of the first couple of days stripping the bikes down and rebuilding them to be as fresh as possible. It was a great opportunity to look at how the frames and all the parts had held up since our first team camp in Portugal, over three months ago. That’s a lot of abuse when the bikes are constantly ridden the way they are under these racers. At this level of racing, we’ll often replace or service parts long before a normal consumer would, just to keep them at their absolute best. So fresh bearings went in as well as some adjustments to the bikes to adapt the reach, chainstay lengths and wheel sizes.
Track walk gave us a break in the clouds and made sure that everyone had a good dose of sunburn before donning the rain jackets again. During track walk you can often get a bit too caught up on the minutiae of a track, too concerned with singular roots and rocks that will simply fly by once you’re up to speed. But the general feel of the track was tight and awkward. A few new sections were taped in to satisfy the UCI, but the majority of the track was the same. And really soft. That meant track walk was not just a once and done affair, but a week-long study of how the track changed and lines developed with thousands of tyres tearing it up.
After a wonderful team dinner on the balcony in the sun supported by our on-site catering company, Roy Brannen’s Cooking LTD, we were back to rain for practice. Mentally this can be quite hard to stay not only focussed when it’s constantly pissing it down, but motivated. Coming from the UK, the whole team knows about riding in the rain and mud, and everyone not only just got on with the job in hand, but was visibly and audibly having a blast ticking off the laps. Bikes and riders came back to the pits in matching earth tones after every run. And after every run the bikes were jet washed down before they went for another tortuous lap. It’s a good job that we seal off all the pivots and designed the bike to be as devoid of mud collecting nooks and crannies as possible. I don’t envy some of the teams having to completely strip their bikes after every practice session. Our DH bike just kept on soldiering through the mud, I imagine with just as big a grin as the riders had.
It was interesting to see how the conditions changed in just five runs. The feedback went from “this is sick”, transitioning through “ahh now it’s a bit tricky” to finally landing on “damn this is hard” as the track got churned up, the holes came out and mud got plastered onto every single surface of the track and surroundings. But as we saw in Fort William, luck can be a cruel mistress, and on his fifth run Ryan came belting into the steepest section of the infamous woods, got a touch off line and came to a dead stop against a tree. He said that he instantly knew something was broken when his arm assumed the recovery position.
And to add insult to injury, this was his 19th Birthday. But a small consolation was that he got to do some pretty good drugs with his Dad’s approval. His eyes barely pointing in the same direction and a cheeky grin plastered to his chops as the ambulance whisked him off to the local hospital. The collar bone had taken all the impact and had broken into three pieces. Luckily none were sticking out, but they required surgery back in the UK to get them all back in the right place. Ever the epitome of maturity, he never lost his cool, despite being understandably devastated at what had happened. But as with his team mate Luke, there’s everything in front of him and we all wish you the best recovery and can’t wait to see you, and Roy, back at the races in a few rounds time.
And then there were two.
Qualification, as we’ve talked about before, is essentially a full on race run if you’re not protected. So come Friday morning the tone was a touch more serious as we went through the practice motions and got ready to head up to the start. By then the rain had stopped, but the track was still like something from a warzone. And as many found out, including some very big names, there was more rolling of the dice once you’d dropped in with that race focussed intent.
Douglas rolled the dice first and came out scoring high with a 4:07, slotting him into 14th place and into the final. KJ was next up and the dice roll was playing out, sitting in 18th place at the third split. But then came the crux of the whole track, the woods. A crash sent her bike into the ground and had brake levers pointing in all different angles. Unable to get them back to anywhere like where she needed, she cruised down and back to the finish. Technically a DNF, she may have been the only person to have ridden both the DH and XC track. But as always, she’s positive even in the face of frustration and takes all these lessons on board, keen and ready to implement them at the next round and put all the pieces of the puzzle together like she knows she can.
Saturday and race day rolled around and we had clear skies, even at the crack of dawn. As for some reason the junior men are the first to go. But Douglas jumped into the practice like a man possessed and even decided to sacrifice a small portion of his warm up to go up for another practice run. He then warmed up at the bottom in the pits as we got his bike ready, post jet wash. Douglas is the youngest on the team, and perhaps he would admit himself that he still gets nervous, despite him wanting to sound like ten men sometimes. So the key is to keep his mind from wandering in the stressful situations that are peppered throughout a race event.
It's immensely cool to be up there with the riders in those situations though, like on race day. There’s so much work and effort that goes on behind the scenes, that many people just watching the live stream may never see or understand. So to watch as they fire out of the start gate and put the work of everyone on the team into practice is fast becoming one of the best feelings.
Perhaps not one of the best feelings is the lonely gondola ride down glued to the live timing, desperate to know what’s going on and if everything went OK. But soon enough you can be back at the finish and Douglas was there, helmet still on and going through everything that happened since we’d last seen each other. In the machine gun delivery of a thick Scottish accent was the story of a wild ride. An almost crash that could have been the end of a run resulted in riding the majority of the woods with both feet clipped out, only to get them back in just before the chasm like Red Bull gap.
Despite all that, he finished in an amazing 13th place once all was said and done. Something that he’d have no problem admitting, takes a bit longer to see the positives than all the places that maybe didn’t go to plan. But one big positive was that he won the speed trap, with the same speed as eventual race winner Jordan Williams. Now the plan is to imagine a speed trap in every section of the course and we’ll be laughing. As well as having more months of the workshop calendar that we perhaps took a liking to and maybe borrowed. Miss June is up on the wall at home, a present from Leogang. And Miss July is waiting for you in Lenzerheide mate.
Downhill racing is a rollercoaster full of ups and downs, literally and metaphorically. The sheer amount of work that goes into such a short few minutes of performance is bewildering. And for that we’re eternally proud of all the team at 555 RAAW Gravity Racing. We’ve gelled like a little family and are sad when the likes of Luke and Ryan aren’t around. But as time moves on, so does the traveling circus of the World Cup, next stop Lenzerheide, for another wild ride aboard the rollercoaster that is downhill racing.