The focus of a World Cup season is very much on the rounds themselves. As the season progresses and points are amassed, more of the focus also lands on the overall title. But lurking away in the back of everyone's minds, gathering weight and importance, is another race, the World Championships.
It's really a one off. The fastest person on that day takes home the prestigious title, and it can bring with it some immense pressure. You only have that one shot at it for the year and you're also doing it for your country, not just your team and sponsors.
It's a race with a different feel. Not least because each nation can bring forwards their best riders and the pits are fuller than ever. But there's extra days of practice compared to a standard World Cup, so it's easy to overdo it before the big day. Despite the seriousness of the title at stake, it's a much more chilled atmosphere as you walk around and talk to friends, racers and mechanics.
It's a bit of a privilege to be selected by your country to race. Some nations don't have a deep talent pool like the UK and France does. Making it onto the team for a UK rider, even in the junior category is no mean feat. So for RAAW to have two bikes at the World Championships, underneath Douglas and KJ, was another first year success that we're still digesting.
Les Gets in France is a common destination for riding holidays, with the bike parks around the small mountain town catering to all manner of riders. But the race track in Les Gets of recent years has always been a formidable beast. Steep gradients, big but technical jumps, and multiple lines have made the track sat up on Mont Cherry something of a rider and fan favorite.
And those French fans don't half enjoy a cycling race. It's somehow engrained in their culture and even in the most miserable weather conditions they come out in their thousands to support. A cycling World Championship in France then is the perfect foundation for a spectacle to occur. And that it did.
Since day one, the normally quiet set up day, the town was buzzing with fans. As the days went on and riders put tyres to dirt, more and more flocked in. Practice runs were sounding like a finals day race run from the sheer amount of cheering and chainsaws. And practice for Douglas and KJ started with differing emotions as the track saw a lot of changes and fresh sections that had everyone walking back up and down on track walk day, inspecting lines and figuring out where to go.
Douglas was a little more apprehensive, but still, steep and fresh is enough to excite him and he'd spent the week prior over the hill in Morzine riding the infamous steep secret trails that cover Le Pleney like a spider's web.
KJ had ridden here before, and she was excited to get on the bike and get going. She's also a fan of when the track gets steep and technical, and once practice came around, it was clear to see this in her riding. She was hooning through the steep technical sections while also ticking off the big gaps pretty quickly.
That extra day of practice helped as Douglas got up to speed and into his usual attacking nature. The track was wild at speed, and needed some serious commitment to take a run's intensity from fast to really going for it. Secretly, he was probably nervous. Although he rarely let it show.
Very recently, the World Championships have introduced qualifying into the schedule. No longer was it guaranteed that you would race, but at least the cut offs for making the big day were considerably bigger than at a World Cup. Come qualification and both riders were feeling ready, to some degree. Douglas had been battling a little with setup all week as the track evolved in the scorchingly dry conditions, and while there was a fair chance he was going to qualify, he still needed to put down a solid run to make sure he was in.
KJ, on the other hand, was already qualified, as the number or elite women entered was less than the qualification amount. For her, she had the luxury of a practice race run without the actual pressure. With this being her nemesis all season long, she grabbed the luxury with both hands, and went through the pre-race routine and went for a full and fast run against the clock.
Douglas didn't have the best run, but managed to make the cut in 42nd place. And despite there being no pressure, KJ unfortunately still succumbed to the nerves and Derek began to multiply. But, importantly, both riders were in the finals and had another full day's practice to figure out the details before it was time for them to do Queen and country proud.
By now the crowds were simply wild. To the point that come practice on the race day, they couldn't hear themselves think as they rode the track. It's not the first thing that someone might think of as one of the things to tackle in a race, but the crowds lining the track were a constant distraction to a rider's attention.
Even though there is an extra day of practice, race day creeps up fast, and we were back up at the top warming up while enjoying the views across the valley and over to Mont Blanc. I'm not sure there is a prettier office in the world for the riders and everyone involved.
As was by now the norm, Douglas was up first. By now the nerves were showing just a little more as he lined up outside the start hut. No matter the confidence shown on the outside, I doubt that anyone wouldn't be nervous sitting there waiting for the beeps to go off, it's a big day. And as Douglas moves up to the elite ranks next year, getting picked for the GB squad in elite is one of the toughest things for a British racer. We're immensely proud of his season's long performance that enabled him to be lining up at a World Championship final.
Douglas is never the fastest out of the gate. His first splits are usually a little down, and give us all a few more nerves, as he then speeds up as his focus gets into the run. Les Gets was no different, as he piled on the nerves for us all intently watching the timing. But he pulled it back through the following sectors of the track to finish the day in 24th position. I think he'll be the first to admit it wasn't the run of his life, as he dealt with some brake feel issues and felt that he couldn't push as much as he knows he can. But it was certainly another solid result to add to his season of solid results.
Next up was KJ. She'd been confident, fast and more importantly, simply enjoying riding her bike all the way through practice. Converting confidence when just riding to racing might sound simple. But simple isn't always easy. I've also battled with the exact same thing, but along with KJ, found it to be the most interesting challenge of racing. Stood behind her in the start as the wooden hut framed her against the mountains, I, we, everyone was hoping that Derek would just leave her alone and politely do what we told him to do and go fetch her a tasty burrito for when she'd finished her run.
Damn you Derek. Damn you.
The challenge of converting confidence over to a race run is a tough one. KJ had a clean run with real mistakes, just not at the intensity that she'd been riding at during practice and skipping a few of the larger gaps that she had hit, but questioned under the race run pressure.
There's always a positive and a negative way to look at the outcome of a race, even if you win. But KJ takes many positives away from Les Gets. Racing at this level is not one time box ticking exercise. Those boxes need to be ticked repeatedly, day in day out, and even the world's best struggle with this. It's been a long season already, and it's easy to forget that KJ hasn't been trying to figure this racing conundrum out for long at all. This is only her second season. While race run confidence might be the hardest box to tick, it's one of the only few that she needs to tick before she'll show Derek who's boss and be right up there.
One very good, and often unique, thing about downhill racing is the commorardery between competitors. Once both riders were done, we cheered on the rest of the elite women's field and made our way back up the track to watch the elite men.
I've been to a few races now, National level, World Cup and a few World Championships. But Les Gets was getting ready to blow all their back doors off. I still remember looking at KJ as two French men sat on the hot seat. Could they make it a clean sweep of the medals? What would happen if they did? Would Les Gets be wiped off the map in the ensuing celebrations?
The French decided to show the world how to ride bikes and I still struggle to put into words the events that followed. Tricolour flare smoke, thousands and thousands of screaming fans that flowed through the streets like rivers, armed police escorts to anti-doping testing, motorcycle burnouts that clouded up the skies and, a lot of hungover eyes the morning after on the coffee run across town.
Les Gets was a spectacle like never seen before. One that I will remember for the rest of my days. Thank you Douglas, KJ and RAAW for letting me experience it.
Photos: Ross Bell, Dan Phone