Alan Milway is coach to Atherton Racing, has worked with many top riders and teams and has coached 5 WORLD CHAMPIONS. Here he gives a trackside viewpoint to the FIRST WORLD CUP of the season.

Words: Alan Milway           Photos: Sven Martin, Matt DeLorme (main above) & Laurence Crossman-Emms

It may be 15 years after I arrived at my first World Cup race, but Lourdes 2016 still brought with it that same feeling of excitement and anticipation. The first race of the season is a time when you are asked ‘how was your winter?’ about 20 times, and catch up with friends and acquaintances from across the globe.  It also brings with it an uncertainty of how things will stack up – what has changed over the winter and who is going to cause a surprise?

With new colours, new race numbers and new kit, the first day of practice has a real air of uncertainty – who exactly is that coming past?

Rachel Atherton on a track walk for the 2016 Lourdes World Cup
Rachel Atherton on a track walk for the 2016 Lourdes World Cup

Practice sessions at World Cups are split in to two groups; A and B. A is for the top 80 men, and B practice is for women, juniors and the men outside of top 80. Not only do they run at different times, but also if you are outside of top 80 you miss a portion of practice time with no timed training scheduled for you.

Steve Peat was in the B practice and was one rider whose silhouette really stood out; his trademark large stature hunched over with his elbows up flying along. It might not be an obvious point to those watching via an internet router, but B practice would have been a real hindrance to him and Marc ‘Slugger’ Beaumont, as the freight train of tops guys to confirm lines and pace through a section just isn’t there. Watching less experienced riders struggle through a technical section doesn’t help with confidence or affirmation, and I think this would have contributed to Marc Beaumont not qualifying this weekend.

Lourdes World Cup 2016 Practice Rachel
Lourdes World Cup 2016 Practice Rachel

In the women’s field Rachel Atherton was also cutting quite a figure in B practice – her pace and line choice through the top rocks was completely different to the rest of the girls as practice began and causing many of the on track spectators and media to comment how she was riding ‘like one of the guys’. Having followed her down many a rock and root strewn track this winter, nothing on this track would have been a shock for her, and her comfort in these conditions was impressive to see.

For the B practice group, their sessions are early (typically starting at 8-8.30am) which brings many challenges in itself: to begin with you have to get up very early; up at 6am every day to eat, travel to race site and warm up prior to getting on the downhill bike.

Along with this, the conditions are at their least favourable. Even on a dry day it is generally very cold in the mountains at 8am and there is often dew on the ground to grease the roots, and on a wet day, the slop and mud hasn’t been cleared from the racing line, so it is down to the girls, juniors and lower ranked men to do the riskier work. Track conditions are arguably harder than the top ranked elite men will ride, and further away from the expected race conditions as their race runs are normally between 1-2.30pm.

The A practice allowed us to see some more creative lines and bolder choices from the worlds very best. A number of lines stood out as only being nailed perfectly by a few riders, and when you watch the footage, they don’t look like anything difficult! The cameras really do flatten the terrain, as some of the rock hops and drops are truly impressive to witness with huge skill and risk involved.

The pinpoint accuracy of the top guys is incredible. It isn’t just the case of doing the hard line once, but over and over again perfectly; I remember a golf coach explaining to me the very best golfers always leave the same exact size divot in the practice range; every shot the same over and over…

Rachel Lourdes LCE
Rachel Lourdes LCE

The physicality of the tracks is always something that interests me; what are the demands placed on the riders? This was a far cry from a ‘bike park’ track, with little pedalling, and a lot of technical lines, especially in the muddy conditions.

There were some steep chutes and big drops to contend with, and towards the bottom was a ‘huck’ line with compressions that highlighted those struggling with their conditioning and upper body strength; you don’t want to crumple over the bike here, or lose your position. Sometimes strength is an insurance policy, and only truly called upon when you need it. However there is a lot of effort that goes in to underpinning a run that looks effortless and seems to be delivered without forcing the bike anywhere it doesn’t want to be.

Rachel Atherton hits the final bridge at the Lourdes world cup track
Rachel Atherton hits the final bridge at the Lourdes world cup track

Qualifying this weekend was interesting from trackside; the track was drying but still greasy and slippery in many places. I was filming trackside on a multi-lined gully – a number of ways in and out of the section leading to various combinations –which was fastest?

Having watched the juniors, women and then men through this section, 3 riders stood out on that run, in those conditions. Gee Atherton, Josh Bryceland and Loic Bruni looked markedly faster and more comfortable on their lines, and before seeing any results I’d put them down as my top 3. Interestingly when I got down and looked over the results, the top 3 were: Loic, Josh and Gee. It made me wonder how critical that section of track was, or was this 15 seconds of viewing merely indicative of how they were approaching the rest of the track?

Come race day, the weather conditions were very different – the track was drying and becoming sticky, claggy, and filling tyres up during the very short morning pactice. With only 1 hour of practice, you have to have a clear goal of how many runs you want to get in. 1 run or 2 during that window? What do you try in terms of lines, or bike set up, or do you merely use the runs as a warm up?

A Red Bull helmet being washed at the Lourdes World CUp 2016
A Red Bull helmet being washed at the Lourdes World CUp 2016

For the juniors, the window between the end of practice and their race runs is quite small, but this increases for the women, and for a top seeded elite males, they could be racing five and a half hours after their last practice run! On a day such as this where the sun was out and the temperature was rising, the track was rapidly drying and becoming firmer.

Taylor Vernon
Lourdes World Cup 2016 race run taylor Vernon

A dry track may be considered a good thing at first thought, but for a racer who has practiced on wet weather tyres, pressure and suspension set up, as the track dries and firms up it adds a number of extra layers of decision and unknown. How hard can I push on the flat/ off camber corners now? Do I change tyres or tyre pressures? What about suspension set up, spring rate etc?

The top guys would have to change their bike set up for finals and run a different set up to get the most from the track and bike. There are certain sections where soft suspension set-ups could be seen and as the day went on, you could see the bikes that were left on an imperfect set up. Experience really pays here, and knowing the direction to take and trust is also a mental advantage.

The racing was as exciting as ever with a very partisan crowd cheering on everyone with all manner of instrument. The location seemed accessible to fans and families alike, and the sun came out and made for a great spectacle.

The results are well documented now, but Rachel Atherton stormed down the track and launched the final drop to win the women’s field by a good margin. Young Finn Iles impressed; a first year junior with undoubted pressure being on the same team as the current World Champion, and wearing a Redbull helmet, he rose to the occasion to hold his run together – which for a junior is not always easy.

The women's podium at the Lourdes World Cup
The women's podium at the Lourdes World Cup

For the Elite men, the track was further drying, and run times creeping down, with the young French rider Amaury Pierron’s time holding on further and further. His splits still stand as being some of the very fastest, with what seems to be a relatively  ‘slow’ bottom section keeping him from being even closer to taking the win. Eventually Gwin took the hotseat, and victory – Bruni will rue another crash having shown his superiority on the track.

The riders now head to Australia for the next round, with time zone changes and shear length of travel being obstacles to over come before they even get on track. With warm and wet conditions expected, things will no doubt be as exciting as Lourdes!

Lourdes World Cup Practice Vernon
Lourdes World Cup Practice Vernon