Keep it real, keep in Raw!
Looking backwards to go forwards?
Alan Milway is coach to Atherton Racing, has worked with many top riders and teams and has coached five World Champions. Here he looks at the state of the tracks that World Cup racers currently face.
Words: Alan Milway Photos: Seb Schieck and Ben Winder
Training to race the World Cup downhill series is a very varied task. Ultimately, the track is what you need to conquer and prepare for – it isn’t a head–to–head sport, it is you against the clock. Unlike a time trial on the road, this time trial is through section upon section of obstacles that you have to successfully negotiate as you use gravity and human effort to strive for that finish line beam.
Yes you need to be fit, the effort of doing this all–out attack for minutes on end is tiring; and you need to be strong too… from accelerating, to resisting compressions, and even reducing the likelihood of injuries, strength is far more than just an insurance policy.
However, the nature of the track is the excitement, the challenge, and ultimately the whole raison d’etre for a downhiller. Some athletes travel around the world and see an environment that is pretty much identical wherever they go; a gym hall, a swimming pool, a running track, an ice rink, a basketball court… the list goes on of sports and sportsmen who deliver their skill in an environment that doesn’t change from event to event, or year to year. Their skill is honed for a closed environment, where the tempo, rhythm and execution are all pre-defined and it doesn’t change whether they are in Moscow or Madrid.
For a downhill racer, it couldn’t be more different – the track tells us what we need to be good at and prepare for – and the variety can be huge; dry, dusty, wet, muddy, rooty, rocky, steep, pedally, big jumps, slow or fast. Tracks can be varied and one rider can be suited to a certain type of track or challenge over another.
And within the tapes is really the where you find the crux of the challenge – how do you pick the best route down? Line choice, memorising the track, and linking together sections to maximise your average speed is a skill too – a craft that once was high on the priority list for a World Cup racer. Sam Hill is arguably one of the best at this, his creativity and ability to find otherwise impossible or obsolete lines to carve time out of his run and leave the rest of us head scratching. Inside to inside, rock gaps, pre-jumping rough rocks, he is a master of this craft and I wonder if his period of dominant runs were because he could fully use this skill to his advantage on the tracks raced?
There has definitely been an evolution of downhill tracks. Back in the early to mid nineties they were essentially fire road blasts, with big gears, tucked in elbows and peaks off the helmet to utilize aerodynamics – pretty much the summer equivalent of downhill skiing. Gradually the tracks got more technical, but still were very long – when Rob Warner won the World Cup held in Kaprun in 1996, his winning time was 7mins 15secs!
In UK downhill there was a huge jump forward in tracks when Jason Carpenter (Manon’s dad) started his Dragon Downhill series in 1999. These tracks really raised the bar and gave the talented UK riders suitable preparation for international races with uplifts, and long and hugely challenging tracks. With very little man made obstacles or grooming they were raw, rough tough. Just learning your way down them was hard enough, where finding the best lines would gain huge amounts of time.
World Cup tracks became more technically challenging and the images brought back and printed in the magazines were always so inspiring – they really showcased the riders’ skills.
How have things changed? TV coverage and bike parks probably have had something to do with this – Mountain biking has become far more accessible and winter resorts are opening up in the summer to host bikers, and are building tracks on their winter slopes. They want races to showcase their wares and bring in riders. They also have the infrastructure to host the events well.
Coverage is also improving hugely, and getting cameras up a mountain and broadcasting live footage is a huge logistical headache, and with 3 minute gaps between riders only a certain amount of track can be shown. If the venue is densely covered it is hard to show much and it can be limited to specific corners (think about Cairns this year in the jungle canopy).
World Cup venues remain quite stable across the calendar, and most tracks are open all season to be ridden whenever you like. Arrive at many tracks now and the riders have a very good idea of bike set up, line choice and where they are going almost immediately: familiarise yourself during track walk and crack on. Come Sunday it is down to execution of the perfect race run that is being challenged, not the person who has pieced the puzzle together the best over the limited time available that weekend – is this good or bad?
Back in the early 2000’s Eurosport covered the racing, and tracks were adjusted massively to cater for this, shortened to give better coverage and close racing. Mont Sainte Anne’s track started way down the hill for this experiment, but ultimately the tracks went back to their ‘natural’ length but exciting racing is still what people want, and the track doesn’t necessarily determine how exciting the racing will be. Arguably the easier or shorter the track, the closer the racing and with closer gaps perhaps this will be more exciting?
I may be looking at this with rose tinted spectacles of an obsession to the sport that spans over 20 years, but tracks such as Schladming, Maribor, Leysin, Kaprun, Val di Sole and Champery had another dimension to them – predominantly raw and natural with line choice and variation, they had an Old School vibe to them, and Champery had this vibe turned up to 10.
Recently I was discussing the Les Gets Worlds track (2004) – how the natural layout of it, wide fast corners, steep sections and the fact it was built for the Worlds and not open to the public made it fresh and a great venue, especially as Les Gets is one of the original Bike Park venues with a plethora of other tracks in the valley. And almost to validate our conversation I watched with excitement over the Crankworx Les Gets weekend as rider after rider endorsed their time in what was otherwise a bog of a place where rain tried its best to ruin the event. You’d never expect such a positive response to the track or the race. Perhaps riding moto style in deep ruts, natural rough terrain across pistes and in to treacherous woods is what has been missing for a while?
At a World Cup now, there may be one section where riders gather and head scratch, and watch attempt after attempt to suss out the best line. It is rarely because it is unrideably difficult, but because it is a choice where time can be made on an otherwise straightforward run down the mountain – as man made jumps and berms wont split these top guys in terms of a challenge.
Downhill bikes have come on a long way in 15 years, but some of the venues are ostensibly the same. Seeing in person what a top end downhill bike, piloted by a world class racer can do is an honour and I think tracks should reflect this.
As a couple of stark examples: We (Trek Factory DH team) were in Portugal this winter testing with Fox and I was riding the test track on my trail bike – first run down and checking it all out. I came to a very steep, off–camber, rooty section and got off to look for lines. I was standing on a steep chute that dropped down 6-8 feet, across a net of thick, slipper roots, flattened out then rolled away again in to a rut. As I head scratched this, realising it would be a commitment to ride it and needed serious skill, Greg Minnaar came in to view. I stood back to watch and he glided up to it… and proceeded to jump the entire section, landing into the rut and disappearing from view and a blur of control and fluidity. I just laughed, as having stood there for a few minutes I hadn’t even considered it would be a viable option on a trail bike with normal human skills.
On the flip side to this, a number of years ago I was at the Pietermaritzburg World Cup as coach to Danny (Hart) and was at the top of the hill for race run warm ups. The lift down had not turned up and along with a number of other coaches and mechanics we decided to ride down the track, turbo trainers strapped to the warm up bikes, trainers on clip pedals and backpacks on. We rolled down 95% of the racetrack with no difficulty or challenge and I found that a shame.
Downhill mountain bikers are adventurous, creative people who don’t want the rhythm and security of similarity. I understand the infrastructure and logistics to host a World Cup, but to turn up to a venue where tapes mark out a fresh track on a mountain side with a restraint of man made intervention would be something new and challenging. We’d see more risk and I think ultimately more reward. And it is therefore with some excitement that we can look forward to the World Championships in Val di Sole in September. A raw, rough track that has hosted some incredible racing, it will be one not to be missed, and hopefully bring a resurgence in this style of track.