Words: Alan Milway
What a way to start the season! Croatia really delivered this weekend; stunning scenery, fantastic weather and a very technical track to properly challenge the riders.
You can certainly question the logic of holding a race where there is no infrastructure, bike park, uplift or even trails at the host location. The track was simply shoehorned into the hillside; through tree cover, over many a dry stone wall, through olive groves and then finally through the streets to finish at a suitable clearing at the harbour. The pits were nowhere near the finish (or the uplift), one run took 45minutes bottom-top-bottom, and the track only had 1min30secs of technicality. But you know what – the attitude and atmosphere towards the venue and track was all positive. What a place Croatia is! And if a World Cup’s remit is to bring downhill to new places, then they nailed it this time.
The track was very natural; it developed over the weekend and was a constant struggle to get ‘flow’. Where many tracks raced on the circuit have technicality in places, they are often ‘hold-it-wide-open-and-hang-on’ but this track was a real test of precision. Exit speed and line choice far more important than raw entry speed. It is interesting then that for a man known for bulldozing his way down a track, Brook was the class act until finals. Finally being off the old GT which he clearly disliked and alluded to recently in an interview (much to the chagrin of GT I hear). The Mondraker had a clear track record on rocky tech (with an incredible 1,2,3 in Val di Sole) and he is clearly showing what he can do on a bike he enjoys. He was on fire all weekend. He was fastest in timed practice, fastest in qualifying, but then came down with nearly 20 riders behind him due to this protected status. I mentioned in my preview to the race the new regulations and these didn’t work out fully in my opinion.
The idea is to protect the top 10 from 2017 for the entire year and give them and their teams a guaranteed return through tv time. The top 10 from the current season are also protected, but it was the running order that was lacking. Brook should have been last man down. Would it have changed anything? Maybe not, but that constant build-up of expectation and bubble of anticipation as to the ‘man of the moment’ wasn’t quite the same.
My stand out rider of the weekend must be Valentina Holl. The Junior Women's winner would have placed 6th in the Elite Womens race – only 5.5 seconds from the top 3. For a first year Junior this is really exciting and I am sure she will be challenging the top times before she graduates the Junior ranks. I don’t think I am the only one to think this, as she has been signed by Redbull, and is reportedly on a six year contract with YT… In the Men's race, Dakota Norton had a real breakthrough ride – he was in the hot seat for over an hour with a time that no one could touch, and to end up 5th was a fantastic step up for another American rider on the scene.
Aaron Gwin really delivered again – his pace through the top rocks was noticeably quicker during his race run (but not during practice in my opinion) and this is where he did his damage. Line choice, bike set up or pure skill? Probably a combination of all three, put to devastating good use. It is fascinating to look through the times and see that some runs were decided on the easiest sections of track – you’d think the key places would be the most technical, but simply hitting a clean backside to the bridge, clearing the flat wooden ramp to road, and pedalling the right gear also made all the difference!
The next race heads to one of the oldest venues on the circuit, Fort William at the beginning of June. If this weekend is anything to go by, we are in for another treat!