Val di Sole is known as the Valley of the Sun, and it lives unto its name more often than not. For me though, I read the name as more like “Valley of the Soul” because the place well and truly has a piece of my soul, it seems to fill a little gap within my mind and for some reason it eases me. We have been going there since 2004 I think, the European Championships used to be held there – before there was a chair lift, before the track was ‘ridden in’ – it was so long and fresh and wild. I raced as a junior and elite there and won 2 or 3 European Champ titles. My mum used to come out to watch. All the GB team used to stay in a hotel and it was so much fun, we used to try and sneak out to the party across the street which was so loud, and then one of the GB staff pulled all the cables out of the electrics and shut it down! I raced there one year after I won my first World Cup in Brazil, my bike had gotten lost on the flight home so I borrowed my mechanic Bob Along’s bike and won my first Elite title…I love the place.
I love the way the mountains just rise straight up from the valley floor and the raging glacial river, they are smothered in thick forest which suddenly ends and gives way to craggy jagged rocks cliffs and high snow fields which are laden with snow year round, the sun is always high and hot, beating down on the enthusiastic Italians, the wild flower-filled meadows and the mile upon mile of apple trees lower down the valley. It really is quite a unique place because the whole atmosphere there feels so secretive and calm. Nothing is in a rush to announce itself to you, it lies up in the woods waiting for you to discover its secret serenity. Or not, either way it continues.
The race site and pits are located right beside the wide roaring river, icy grey in colour and just as cold, it smashes over rocks and boulders and lends itself perfectly to the World kayak Champs which have been there a few years. Next to the river is a path, for bikes and walkers alike, and if you head North from the race pits nothing remarkable happens particularly, the path just winds its way steadily through meadows filled with wild flowers, along the bottoms of vegetable filled gardens, over a few bridges and then dives again through the meadows which spread wider across the valley floor beside the river. Half way along this path there is a ramshackle log shed, a large shed with logs enough for a few winters stacked perfectly, patched on the roof with wide slivers of bark, and in pride of place at the front, a weathered old rocking chair with The Old Mans jacket draped over the back.
I have some photos and memories, both from last year. Affy and myself were riding along this path toward the race, he was in front and the path winds away in front of him at the side of this meadow, in the near distance the race hill rises wooded and steep, and further away the sheer cliffs stand tall, topped with snow. The sun is shining and creates a haze. I feel so much love when I look at that photo.
So too do I feel Love when I touch my World Champs top, 2008. I feel the heat from that day, I feel the happiness creeping over my shoulders and down my chest, gripping my heart. I remember the moment after I crossed the line, still confused on my finishing position, and looking back to see my name at the top of the score board, and realising that I had done it. The noise that came from deep in my throat. I remember the joyful feeling as Josh and Sam Dale embraced me, all of us wild on winning, the feeling of complete calm and understanding as I watched Gee racing, surprised by my total confidence that he would win also, having not really thought about it at all until that point.
I cherish more than anything the memory of running at Gee holding the British flag and having him turn, his face alive, he held back not one ounce of himself and in that moment I saw everything, we locked eyes and I saw his disbelief and I was so proud of him I could’ve died. The memory of standing with Gee and Josh, their arms around me, alone at the back of the press conference with Alex Rankin, all I could see was white and stripes and sunlight, everywhere, I could feel their chests rise and fall under my hands, the material of the World Champs tops sticking to their warm sweaty skin, the slight nervousness we all felt that something might take it away from us. That was the day that everything changed, my life changed, and Val Di Sole changed me. No matter what happens Val di Sole will always be special for me.
WOOOAHHHH… little carried away there sorry! Gee just looked at me (we are in Mt St Anne sitting on the sofa, Marc just did a one armed push up, with a pillow for his nose! Gee just said ”that’s gunna piss you out of sync”" we are watching England play Ukraine..footy! Browny just came in and did 3 one armed push ups…awesome!)
Andy Lund, my new mechanic picked us up from the airport in our Atherton Racing branded Vito, and we drove to Val di Sole, our first outing as a full team, myself, Gee, Marc and Dan Brown. I love having Marc with us, he brings a completely different dynamic to the team. We are noticeably more relaxed and cheerful with Marc around, or I am anyway! He takes the piss out of me relentlessly when I am in one of my bad moods and it does take the edge off. Because he is not my brother I don’t get very angry with him, and I find myself looking to him for advice, he always has time to talk to me, point things out to me and he makes me feel respected as a rider. Marc also laughs like crazy at the smallest things, its cool. So the weekend was off to a good start already.
Our race truck had a makeover in the winter and looked fresh as a daisy, white and yellow everywhere, with extra space added onto the awning so the pits felt huge, I was so stoked to be at a World Cup finally, with all the new team, new look, new bikes and seeing everyone on the circuit again after the winter.
The sun was indeed shining and we set off as a full team for track walk, a first for us. Val di Sole is such a long, challenging rough track that having the mechanics know exactly what we are riding on and the importance of bike and brake set up proves to be a big help throughout the weekend…the track walk blew my MIND! I couldn’t believe how deep the dust was, a few new sections at the top were feet deep in dust and loam, with roots all up in that mix so that we knew the riding was going to be pinball loose and wild!
Practise started and I was right, it was WILD! The dust was so deep and unpredictable, everyone looked on the edge, people were so front heavy and nearly going over the bars so much, even the top guys looked like they were all over the place! It made me work really hard on my suspension set up, something that I value more and more the older I get. I struggled a bit to find the flow, such a hard track to flow on because it was getting so blown out with 400+ riders, but it was good fun, really fun! Once I got my lines pretty dialled in, it became a case of trying to put it all together and build the speed up, but also you had to relax enough that if you blew off line you could just accept it and carry on. Towards the end of the track though I made sure that my lines were the smoothest I could, avoiding holes is a big thing for me and something I know personally pays off….
The race pits are at the side of a massive river, and after practise all the riders could be found at various stages of undress, soaking tired legs and bodies in the ice cold water, it was so fun trying to hold on in the middle of the raging river, trying not to get swept away! Anyway, this is getting a little long winded so I will move onto race day!
Race day came around and I was bang awake at 5am, nervous as hell. It was a surprise to feel so nervous and I could barely eat my breakfast, Sven Martin – WC photographer ace and friend- stays with us and he spoke some wise words to me at breakfast, about how I am experienced with dealing with these nerves, and it made me realise that I have been in this position a hundred times before (maybe not quite a hundred!) so even though I was nervous, I welcomed it, didn’t try to fight it, I accepted the nerves and let them carry me. I decided to let my subconscious mind and body do its thing, so I rode to the pits early listening to Marina and the Diamonds, and was so early to the pits that I then cycled around singing at the top of my voice for a long time. I rode around the finish arena, looking, feeling, remembering, accepting, and it felt good to know that no matter what I did, the day would unfold as it would, and the day would come to an end, and the next day would begin.
Routine is something that I shunned as a youngster, but over the last year or so, I have come to realise that routine for an athlete is almost as important as anything. It allows you to just Do. So I had my routine for that morning, the right amount of practise runs for me, decided on from a winter of timed training, of knowing after how many runs I am at my fastest. A routine decided upon from years and years of racing world cups, of learning from mistakes and from winning, of recording everything on paper, so that I can look back in an instant and read what worked once.
So I had my practise routine and I stuck to it, which was a struggle, because I was so tired! Such a tiring track is easy to get carried away on and it was important to find the balance between doing enough practise and doing too much, but this time I knew what to do. One of my practise runs I got a swap on in the final steep section, and when I anchored to a halt on the side of the track, I turned and looked back up at the track and everyone started clapping! It was So Funny and made me smile and happy all day! One run I had to sit on the grass at the finish arena because my legs were that painful! I was shocked that a full run could be so bad, with no pedalling and almost 5 minutes of squatting it was a real killer. Beaumont came over and offered me some good advice, which I soaked up and made my mantra for the day. Thanks Marc
So after some baked beans and boiled eggs it was time to go. Andy and me climbed into the chair lift where he found an Iphone on the seat…looking at the photos trying to decipher who’s phone it was kept us entertained and my mind off the race, although some of what I saw I wish I had not!! hahahaha….
Warm up at the top of the hill was a nervous affair, I could feel everyone’s tension and I tried to relax myself and just let it happen. Before I knew it I was in the start gate and there was 3 minutes to go, at which point I thought ” cant sit here for 3 minutes thinking about the track” so I backed out and sat back a bit until 1 minute, when I rolled in and looked for the clock which counts you down, there was no clock! I asked Mr Start Man where it had gone and he just said ”no clock” so that was a bit weird. Mr Start Man is cool, we always say a little hello and smile, I feel like he sees something that no body else does, he sees the riders in their final moments before they race, he sees everyone’s rituals and thoughts. A pretty cool job if you ask me.
Race runs are what I live for. They are when the world slows down and every little thing means a lot. Race runs are the only time when my mind is empty of all things but the task in hand, they ground me and calm me and keep me alive. During a race run everything is amplified, awareness of the bike working, of the tyres gripping, of the breath filling your body, you sense and feel things in your body you weren’t aware of, awareness of people shouting trackside, cheering your name. Awareness.
My run felt quite calculated, Val di Sole is a track that I have to ride very deliberately, putting myself where I need to be instead of where the track wants me to ride, I need certain lines where others riders do not, and thinking about braking points and drag, tiredness, breathing and gear changes was crucial for me. The top section was pinned, near perfect and set the tone but after a very near crash in the mid section where my shoulder tweaked itself massively, I sat down and calmed myself down. The last 2 minutes of track was wild hard, arms pumped to the max with the unnerving knowledge that if anything very unexpected happened, I would not have the strength to hold onto her! Death gripping into the last field and into the pedal was a wicked feeling, giving it your all on a downhill track is like nothing else and very satisfying. Crossing the line into the lead with Ragot still to come was rad and made me happy, then sitting on the hot seat as my time ticked by and she was still on course, PomPom saying ”you’ve won Rachy’ and all I could think was how close I had been to crashing and I was angry that I had let myself push that hard so early on in the season. I was in a little bit of a bubble I think, the shock of racing still gets to me, going from nothing to 100% for 5 minutes then back to nothing again is gnarly and it wasn’t until the podium later on as I walked out onto the deck and everyone started cheering and yelling that it really sank in. The relief washed over me suddenly and instantly as I realised that a win meant the start of exactly what I wanted, a race season, a battle, a test of mind and matter…there it began and we were all going to give it a damn good shot!
Standing on the top step looking at the same view I had looked at 4 years ago, seeing that people were there for us, watching and involved, I felt so amazingly lucky to be able to be a part of this sport full of such characters.
A while afterwards I cycled along the path beside the river and into the meadows, I stopped at the ramshackle log shed and asked no one in particular if I could sit a while in the rocking chair. I climbed into the chair and settled back, the smell of tobacco on The Old Mans jacket reassuring me slightly. The view was amazing, the sun was sinking and warm, and the quiet I could hear after the gnarly craziness of race day was so, so good. Looking all around at the masses and masses of forest I thought how strange it is that for a short time, a few metre wide stretch of trail in that small section of forest was alight with speed, fear and adrenaline, whilst everything else remained the same.
I thanked no one in particular for the seat and I left. See you next year Val Di Sole