Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Nathan Hughes

Here at INTENSE there is no sport quite like downhill racing…. we live and breathe it. So it was with great excitement that we greeted the 2022 World Cup race season opener from Lourdes (France) this past weekend. With new team riders, and a brand new bike (the prototype M279 HP1), the anticipation was high.

Lourdes is no place for the faint-hearted. Around three minutes of relentless roots and rocks, drops and holes. As with all World Cup tracks Lourdes is a real test of bike and body, and as the first World Cup of the season it was an ‘in at the deep end’ experience for everyone. There’s no real let up, and with very little pedaling it suits the technically gifted riders who are prepared to just LET IT GO! Luckily the weather was good and the track stayed dry. A blessing for sure.

After lengthy queues on the first day of practice the INTENSE Factory Racing (IFR) team of Aaron Gwin, Joe Breeden, Dak Norton and Seth Sherlock were all set for qualifying on Saturday. All four riders were on the new M279 HP1, a bike that they had only had for a couple of weeks, and in Joe’s case only a few days. Everyone knew it, but this was going to be testing in the raw. Having a new bike to ride just days before a World Cup is not the best situation to be in, but props to the team, they did their thing and just got on with it.

Aaron knows the track in Lourdes well, having won there twice before, but due to him missing a big chunk of the 2021 season it meant that he wasn’t a protected rider and would need to qualify in the top 60 to make it through to the finals. But in the early practice session on qualifying day he took a massive slam.

“This morning was going real sweet until I completely bodied myself on this rock slab. Thankful to walk away from this one uninjured, just sore. Made it through qualifying with a safe run as well. Not gonna lie, I was a little nervous, I haven’t actually had to qualify in a lonnng time. Haha.”

Aaron qualified in 35th with Dak in a solid and very respectable 13th. Unfortunately for Joe he just wasn’t on the pace, riding below the level he knows that he can be at. He won’t want to make excuses, but with so little time on the new bike it is no surprise really. There’s lots more to come from Joe.

Frustration and disappointment for Seth. He was on a great run, but within sight of the finish (100m) he hit the new SX whoops section and his left hand just came off the bars. A big crash and his chance of qualifying was over. The real frustration was that at the fourth and final split he was sitting in 49th position, easily inside the cut-off time. That was tough.

Race day came around and the place was just NUTS! The passionate French supporters putting on a great show. It felt that it was written in the stars that a Frenchman was going to win… it just had to be.

Aaron had a clean run and would finish in 33rd, “Not the result I came here to get but after the crash yesterday I was happy to still line up and get some more time on the clock. Looking forward to working hard these next few months before round two.”

When Dak came down the track and into the finish arena the clock went green and it was all smiles. A super-solid performance that would eventually leave him in 11th position and less than three seconds off a top-5 podium spot. He now sits in thirteenth position overall, meaning that he will be a protected rider at round two in Fort William.

There’s now an eight week gap in World Cup racing. Not only will this give the team time heal up and train, but to also get to know the new M279 HP1 bike a little better, and to continue to provide feedback to help its development. More time on the bikes for the riders and engineers is vital to this project.

The first World Cup was indeed a spectacle, and a great showcase for the sport we love. Congratulations to all of those on the podium, but especially Camille Balanche and Amaury Pierron, and in Juniors Gracey Hemstreet and Jackson Goldstone (whose time must have the Pro field a little worried!). Huge thanks and respect to everyone involved with the IFR program this year – from the riders, mechanics, TM, right through to Jeff and his team of engineers and designers in California.

World Cup round 2 takes place in Fort William (Scotland) on May 21/22.