The final round. Looking back, Lourdes feels like an eternity ago. But as we all made our way through to the Trentino region of Italy and to, what we hoped would be, the valley of the sun it was an exciting thing as the band was back together.
Luke and Ryan were back with us, along with their dads Francis and Roy. We also had even more members of the Williamson and Brannen family joining for the season finale, giving the pits an exciting atmosphere. A special thank you goes out to Lewis, Luke’s brother, who donned a team bib over his party shirt and was up on the hill line spotting, videoing and relaying all the information back to us about how the track was evolving and where the fastest lines were developing.
And what a track. Val di Sole is already now known as one of the roughest that we race on. It’s in stark contrast to how it looked when it debuted. But as we made our way down on the track walk, it was clear to see that this year’s incarnation was going to be a notch or two rougher than previous years. Despite some rain, the crazily dry conditions meant that the dust was inches deep in sections, already hiding holes that were going to grow as thousands of wheels hit them.
It was brilliant to have all the racers together again. Some of the previous rounds had a little of a fragmented feeling, as we were missing people and the full team atmosphere. The last time we had all been together was way back in Fort William, and we had really good memories of that race.
While we were up on track, looking at lines, the rest of the team was at work strpiping, cleaning and rebuilding the bikes. It had been a long and tough season for the bikes. But after a season’s beating, the only thing we had broken were a few derailleur hangers. Durability was one of the cornerstones of the DH bike project. It’s a solid pillar of what makes RAAW. But to be at the end of our first race season on the bike and have frames that could still be ridden on and on, was a huge confirmation that we’d instilled the RAAW DNA into the DH project.
As the bikes got built back up, Ryan was particularly excited as he’d spent the previous couple of weeks riding in and around the Portes du Soleil. His collarbone break in Leogang was fixed and he was conscious to put in some decent bike time prior to Val di Sole on tracks that were long, challenging and demanded strength and the bike to be ridden hard. He knew what was laying in wait.
We also had some fresh 3D printed pieces that we’d designed to mount our data acquisition system, from BYB Telemetry, specifically to our frame. Mounting the logger inside the frame moved it a little more out of the firing line of debris and also gave us a more central position from which to look at the pitch, roll and yaw of the bike as it was being ridden.
While it might not seem like it to the outside world, people were tired by the time we got around to practice. While you can do more runs in one day at your local bike park than a racer at a whole World Cup event, it’s physically and mentally sapping beyond belief. Val di Sole was the final round in a long season, and it was the roughest track out of all of them. The week took its toll on a lot of racers, with many DNS adorning the results sheet.
Nevertheless, the team was raring to go. Everyone except Douglas had ridden here before, and his nerves were not only showing, but being vocalized. The Black Snake was intimidating and full on. Ryan was just a bundle of excitement. Stoked to be back, stoked to be on a freshly built bike and stoked on the track. KJ was happy to be in one piece after a long season, but more importantly, excited to simply be riding after a mentally challenging season.
Luke, as calm and conservative as ever, was just back in the process of going flat out from the word go. The lad might only have two speeds in his gearbox, but it sure is awe inspiring to watch him ride a bike. His Dad, Francis, is an ex-motorcycle racer who knows a thing or two about making man and machine go as fast as possible. A lot of his learnings are evident in how Luke works, but the duo together have their simple goal of making Luke and the bike go as fast as possible. It’s been a pleasure getting to know them and be a part of this quest.
And with the whole team back together, it was much busier come practice. Douglas and KJ were in the earlier B practice, with Ryan and Luke in the later A practice. Douglas worked on getting up to speed and beginning comfortable with the wildness that the track delivered. For his early runs he felt like he and the bike were all over the place. But after a chat with Luke, he learnt that this is just Val di Sole, and rather than fight it, go with it.
For KJ, the track offered next to no big gaps to tick off. It was more just rough and technical from top to bottom, so this allowed her to concentrate on the lines and figuring out the fastest one for the least amount of energy sapped. It would be easy to look at it and say just hit all the harder, more technical lines in an effort to straighten the track out. But Val di Sole can be more about metering out the energy as you make your way down, ideally having spent your last token as you cross the finish line. But it’s easier said than done. She employed a rating and scoring system to each section of the track to keep track of how well she hit certain sections but also to stop possible mistakes from becoming conscious baggage that dictates how you ride after you’ve made them.
Ryan’s first practice run was a mini disaster. A blown shock left him with little to no damping, so he rushed back to the pits to get it swapped out and back up the hill. But as we waited around for him to come back from his second practice run, word reached us that he’d crashed. Luck is something out of our control, but for one of the nicest young lads in racing we all wish he had a bit more. To have just come back from a broken collarbone, only to break the other, is a cruel twist of events. Luckily, however, this break wasn’t as bad as before and there was less movement in the bones. But it was still gut-wrenchingly hard to watch.
Ryan’s head is firmly screwed on though. And while he was understandably gutted about the crash and outcome, I could already see that a bit of his focus was already on recovery and being back on the bike.
Practice for the rest of the team went well, however, each with their own slightly different agenda to deal with. It still impresses, or concerns, me how few runs riders do before going hell for leather. But qualification day arrives and it’s time to put down a fast run no matter where you are at dealing with your agenda.
Douglas was up first. We found a nice cubby hole under the lift to warm up, a little more away from the crowds. Today’s youth might be a bit more obsessed with social media, so making sure the warm up isn’t just for the body, but also for focussing the mind ready to drop in, is an important part. He was still trying to fully figure the track out, and some last minute changes to the bike might not have helped him be settled mentally. But he dropped in and as is the norm, wasn’t the fastest at the first split. But this is usually what happens and we tend to see him rise up the timing as the sectors go by. That he did, but unfortunately, he didn’t rise up the times enough, finishing just shy of one and a half seconds from making the cut.
He admittedly wasn’t happy about not qualifying, but mixed with that was also the honesty that he knew he just didn’t go as fast as he needed.. He’s consistently been around the 13th position mark in finals for most of the rounds. And it’s not nice to end the season on a somewhat low note. But that can be taken two ways, and I’m sure it throws some more petrol on the fire for the off season that will drive, push and inspire him to train physically and mentally harder for his step up to elites. It’s a big step, and he has ambitions of making it to A practice relatively quickly.
KJ was up next and maybe was more relieved to be lining up for the final time. Mental battles require a lot of energy to fight, and she’d been through the wars this year. But she’s always a positive soul and everything prior to the qualifying run was surrounded by an air of fun and just enjoying riding her bike.
Admittedly, the elite women's field is small, perhaps in large part to the small number of ladies that can qualify. It’s a huge task to qualify for a World Cup as an elite female. On a side note, maybe more females would race if the qualification number was increased. Surely it puts a lot of ladies off entering in the first place. But I digress.
KJ’s run didn’t go to plan at all. Her first two splits were not too bad, around the 21st mark. But mental battles after that left her feeling like pulling off the track and just calling it a day was the best thing to do, rather than push on not in the right frame of mind and risk crashing and injury. A tough decision to take, that’s for sure, but a wise one. She could draw a line in the sand for this season and look towards the off season and some recovery. She already has plans in place to improve her jumping skills and comfort in the air, and while she’s probably physically stronger than most of the elite males, she’ll no doubt be even fitter and stronger come next year.
Last up was Luke, accompanied by Francis. Luke is a different man around the time he’s about to drop in against the clock. While some might mistake it for rudeness, his steel focus is something I admire and just a part of preparation that he knows so well. The poor little turbo trainer takes a beating and it’s rare for there to be more than a few words said. But come the beeps in the start hut and it’s fascinating to watch a person be so focussed on a particular task. We’ve said before, Luke is a racer through and through, no doubt in part thanks to Francis.
Francis and I stood at the top glued to the live timing. The qualification start order isn’t so straightforward and so we watched as each rider dropped in and as their splits came up on the screen. The top 60 men qualify and Luke was hovering in the 50s, while unknowingly giving us severe anxiety. But, unfortunately, he missed the cut by less than a second and only a couple of spots. Times were really, really tight in Val di Sole. There were tens of racers finishing in the same second. It’s a tough one to swallow, for all of us. Luke the most, obviously, but for Francis too, as he puts so much blood, sweat and tears in.
Redemption would come, however, in the form of winning the final British National round and also the overall series. Something that we’re all immensely proud of. The British talent pool is a deep one and Luke goes into next year’s national series with the number one plate. Well done mate.
And just like that, our first season of World Cup DH racing was over. I think we all breathed a huge sigh of relief collectively. World Cups are full on for everyone involved, no matter how small the facet of involvement. It’s an emotional rollercoaster where the highs are sky high and the lows are down in the depths. It takes some energy to ride it, so it’s good to now come home to Champery, decompress and just do some plain and simple riding. Even if my brain can’t rest and I’m out in the woods testing setups and drumming up new ideas.
We’ve learnt a hell of a lot. About the bike, team structure and organization, race environments, testing and many more things. But perhaps the thing we weren’t anticipating was to learn so much about psychology. For a racer to win, they need to do it on a bike. The person and machine are a unit and one can influence the other in so many ways. Even the way a person delivers feedback or advice to a racer can influence their perception of how the bike is working. But what we’ve found out from our first season racing at a World Cup level is that our bike is working. It has the speed to perform, it has the adjustability to adapt to different riders, terrain and conditions and it has the durability to do it week in week out without giving the racer or team the worry in the back of their minds that something might break.
We’re immensely proud of the collaboration with the 555 RAAW Gravity Racing team and everyone involved. But we’re also really damn proud of our little DH bike. We can’t wait for it to finally go on sale to the public and aspiring privateer racers . But maybe more than all of that, we can’t wait to ride it more ourselves.
Photos: Ross Bell