If you’ve not already watched the downhill action from Vallnord, now would be the time to do so. Or, read on, and then wish you’d watched it not knowing the results, and be compelled to go back and watch it anyway. So. Much. Action.
Photos – credit Red Bull Content Pool
In the race preview I suggested it might’ve been good to race the old track in Andorra one last time. I was wrong. What. A. Track. Steep, short and very, very fast. Starting at just shy of 2400m where there’s 24% less oxygen, riders drop 457m in under 3 minutes and aside from the sprint out of the start gate and the sprint for the line, no other pedal strokes are required unless you make a mistake. Conditions are loose and it’s so dusty that full mud spikes are the order of the day.
The top section in particular is so fast that you don’t want to think about what would happen if things go wrong, but they are going wrong. As you might expect, before we’ve even made it to race day there have been a lot of crashes. Matt Walker, Greg Minnaar and Bernard Kerr have all had big ones, Oisin O’Callaghan broke his wrist & collarbone in this crash and Benoit Coulanges wiped himself out for a few weeks. The bravest are sending a step down into a field of tree stumps just after the half way point which is worth a second if you get it right, a lot longer than that if you get it wrong.
The action was hot before the live broadcasts started, as the Juniors were banging it out. Phoebe Gale’s 3:16.8 was only 3 seconds slower than the Elite Women’s fastest qualifier and she took the win by nearly 6 seconds from Gracey Hemstreet with Jenna Hastings in third.
In Junior Men things got even wilder. Jackson Goldstone’s 2:43.4 was the fastest time of the weekend and Jordan Williams set the third fastest with Tegan Cruz finishing in third. Remy Meier-Smith had a brutal crash off the side of the landing ramp as he entered the arena. Thankfully he’s OK.
Over to the Elite Women… In seeding runs Camille Balanche claimed her fourth qualifying win in a row, 1.6 ahead of Nina Hoffmann with Myriam Nicole who’d been sick all week, in third.
Once the racing started the first rider to set a notable time was Anna Newkirk, who posted a 3:19.9 and with it a 4 second advantage over Siel Van der Velden. The young American is having a solid season and is firmly establishing herself in the Elite ranks, but there were 8 riders still to go and she would finish eighth.
Mille Johnset is visibly faster, going green by 4 seconds with an awesome run that’s only 2.5 seconds back on Balanche’s fastest qualifier. She’s not in the hotseat for long though. Kiwi Jess Blewitt is neck and neck with her all the way down but crosses the line with a 0.9 second advantage. Into the big hitters…
Eleonora Farina has been on the podium at the last 3 World Cups, but not today. Losing time all the way down it’s 2.6 seconds by the time she crosses the line. Vali Hoell has crashed in her race runs at the last 3 World Cups and in seeding here. The 2021 Series winner is clearly chasing wins rather than playing for positions and it’s clear they will come when she manages to put a clean run down. There’s no change in strategy today with an aggressive run that sees her up by 5.4 at split 3 and she crosses the line in 3.09.8, a 5 second advantage and a time that’s going to take some beating.
Winner last weekend in Lenzerheide, Myriam Nicole has the raw pace to challenge Vali and she’s equally as aggressive, turning the clock green before crashing out near the bottom for her first finish outside the top 3 this season. In qualifying, the winner of Round 2 in Fort William, Nina Hoffmann was fastest until the last split. The German really went for it in Fort William but today she’s not taking as many chances. Down by 2.3 at Split 2, she’s going around rather than straight and losing time to Hoell all the way down. The standard is so high now that if you want to win you just can’t ride like that. She still crosses the line in second though, 3.5 seconds back.
Over to you Camille Balanche… The Series Leader isn’t on it today though. She goes off the side of the track just by the second split and it unsettles her which leads to other mistakes further down but she still crosses the line in third. Hoell gets her first win of the season and with the next round in Snowshoe where she won both races last season the rest of the Elite Women better look out.
1. Vali Hoell: 3:09.803
2. Nina Hoffmann: 3:13.341
3. Camille Balanche: 3:13.487
4. Jess Blewitt: 3:15.002
5. Mille Johnset: 3:15.922
It’s no surprise nowadays for the 3 fastest qualifiers in Elite Men to be French. Loris Vergier posted the fastest time, a 2:46.9 with Series Leader Amaury Pierron second and Loic Bruni third. Trying to find just 0.4 of a second Amaury Pierron tried a gap in practice on Saturday morning that resulted in a huge crash, snapping his handlebars and leaving him battered and bruised.
Surprisingly, the early running is made by thirtieth fastest qualifier, Oliver Zwar. The Swede can’t have experienced conditions like these often in his formative years in Scandinavia but, his 2:48.3 would eventually be good enough for a career best eighth place finish.
Just like last weekend in Lenzerheide, the tempo increases with the arrival of the protected riders, who slotted in ahead of the top 20 qualifiers. Australia’s Troy Brosnan looks fast and in control but doesn’t do the stump gap and crosses the line in seventeenth. Thibaut Daprela is green at the first 2 splits but 1.8 back on Zwar when he crosses the line. Angel Suarez-Alonso rides beautifully, pre jumping the road gap and perfectly sending the stump gap. He goes fastest, however he lost 1.6 seconds of his advantage in the final few turns, so we know the Spaniard’s time can be beaten and Luke Meier-Smith does just that, going quicker by 0.1 which would see him achieve a career best sixth place.
Danny Hart is the first of 3 Brits in a row. The dusty conditions have similar levels of traction to the mud that he excels in and despite sending it perfectly off the stump gap he crosses the line in eighth, eventually ending up eighteenth. Winner of Round 3, Leogang Matt Walker got off line resulting in a huge crash that will hurt his chances in the overall – he came into this race in second but exits it in fourth. Charlie Hatton squashes the stump gap losing 1.3 in that section alone but still finishes fifteenth.
Andorran resident and current World Champion Greg Minnaar is 0.1 back at Split 2 but we know the 40 year old will have some gas in the tank for the second half of the track. Gapping onto one of the bridges near the finish it’s a goosebump generating run but he crosses the line 0.8 back, eventually finishing twelfth.
At the other end of the age spectrum is Pau Menoyo Busquets, winner of the Catalan Cup race on this very track a few weeks ago; what can he do? The first year Elite is in touch at the halfway point but fades away in the bottom half.
With 10 riders to go Loris’ qualifying time still hasn’t been beaten and we have Luke Meier-Smith in first, Angel Suarez Alonso in second and Oliver Zwar in third.
European Champion Andreas Kolb doesn’t have the best start to his run, pedalling out of the first corner but he keeps it safe up top and then goes full gas from the halfway point. 1.2 seconds back at one stage he goes green by 0.3 by the time he crosses the line.
Bernard Kerr gets loose where Pierron crashed in practice, eventually finishing fourteenth. Laurie Greenland carries a huge amount of momentum, going around the outside of every turn at the top before tiring in the bottom half and eventually finishing tenth. Dakotah Norton wearing the stars and stripes of the US National Champion can’t sparkle this weekend and ends up nineteenth. Young Frenchman Hugo Frixtalon puts a neat and tidy run together but he’s 3.8 seconds back by the time he crosses the line. 5 to go…
Conditions are as close to SoCal as Aaron Gwin is likely to ever find on this side of the Atlantic and he’s loving it this weekend. Green by almost 2 seconds at Split 2 he pulls off the save of the century and is still somehow up by 1.3 up at the next split. There’s another mistake but the 5 time World Cup Champion holds on to go fastest. Form is temporary, class is permanent.
Spoiler… That save of the century isn’t the save of the century for long. Finn Iles goes fastest at Split 1 by 0.7 seconds. Madness. He’s 1.3 up at Split 2 before riding the bars for a full 10 yards, he keeps pushing though and nearly goes off the side of the ramp like Remy Meier-Smith did earlier. Green by 0.7. How?
His team mate Loic Bruni broke his collarbone at Fort William just 8 weeks ago. In his comeback race last weekend in Lenzerheide he finished twenty third, struggling with pain in his shoulders. He still sends the stump gap though. To give this some perspective, so hard is the landing in this section that earlier in the day Ed Masters lost a false tooth. Bruni goes green by 0.2. What? How?
Let’s face it, it’s a miracle that Amaury Pierron is riding at all. As you might expect it’s not the usual commanding run but he still finishes the day thirteenth and it’s days like today where the overall is won. Which leaves Loris Vergier at the top. Green by 0.3 at Split 2 he’s insanely quick. 0.6 at Split 3 he nails the stump gap; it’s absolute perfection and he crosses the line with a 1.4 second margin.
It’s the only way it could end. What a race.
1. Loris Vergier: 2:44.500
2. Loic Bruni: 2:45.918
3. Finn Iles: 2:46.197
4. Aaron Gwin: 2:46.913
5. Andreas Kolb: 2:47.519
Battle will recommence in a fortnight in Snowshoe. I might just have recovered by then!
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