If, like me, you’ve never been to Val di Sole before, it is nigh on impossible to imagine the track’s full ferocity. The esteemed venue has been a rider favourite since hosting the World Championship in 2008, and it isn’t hard to see why. This is true downhill, from a rough start through wide-open turns (new for 2015), through its plunge into the infinity boulders in the sun-dappled woods and into the near-vertical closing minute-or-so there really is no let up. Just when you’d want things to ease up they just keep coming at you. There are few tracks that create quite so much apprehension just as a spectator, but watching from the sidelines here has you teetering on the edge of your seat at all times.
There is no World Cup track like it. The fresh metres from the start resemble other courses, but once it dives into the woods the punishment that VDS doles out is non-stop. With incessant boulders, ruts, roots, compressions, crests, chutes and holes this one packs more punches than any other, its constant abuse culminating in the steepest sections, which freefall into the open finish area.
It’s no wonder riders are nervous before each and every run here (even if some won’t admit it). The constant onslaught of boulders takes every ounce of concentration, and if that falters for one brief moment riders are spat off line and into a carnage of holes, rocks and dense trees. We saw Junior N.2 Andrew Crimmins compress and wander off track flat out into a three-metre huck to rocky riverbed in practice, the Kona rider beyond fortunate not to injure himself in the process. Great judgement of speed is vital here – too fast and leave braking to the wrong moment and riders can soon be in a world of hurt.
Val di Sole lures riders into riding faster and faster, the worst of it coming after the halfway point when arms are already fatigued and focus tested to the limit. As things get steeper they also straighten out, and as practice proved this year if you are a few centimetres off the good line in places you will be bucked off and thrown into a pit of sharp rocks…
Who looked fast? Of course, all the riders you’d imagine. Gee Atherton confirmed his visual speed with a first place in timed runs, Laurie Greenland was hitting as many laps as possible and the 2015 Junior World Cup Champ also put in the fastest run of his category, and completely unsurprisingly after a straight run of five wins, Rachel Atherton looked characteristically strong, poised and fast and put in the quickest lap.
But there is a championship at stake here, and the two men at the front of the standings – Greg Minnaar and Aaron Gwin – were leaving no stone unturned in their preparations, the former looking relaxed and ready to strike, the latter focused on his line and putting in some seriously fast sections.
Troy Brosnan in stealthy kit was perhaps the standout rider, hitting full-throttle runs and well-and-truly stating his intention of winning a World Cup before the season is out. Loic Bruni riding past is a whole different spectacle – he’s so fast, so clean and so silent in his riding that there is always a stir as he throttles by. He is hanging in there in the top three, and a big result here could boost him back up to the number two ranking he had before flatting in Windham at the last round.
It’s all to play for in the Elite Men, and with 50 points up for grabs in Friday qualifying there will be a battle to eek the most out of this final dash to the line for 2015.