Words by Mike Rose
Photos by Nathan Hughes
The eighth and final round of this year’s World Cup was a fitting end to a season of classic racing. The world’s fastest made the journey from the World Championships in the French alpine resort of Les Gets to the infamous and iconic Black Snake in Val di Sole, Italy. A horrible jumble of roots and rock, a treacherous test for any rider, and with the overall standings still not decided we were all set for a classic. It would be a race that will go down in the history books for INTENSE Factory Racing (IFR).
The complete IFR team of Aaron Gwin, Dakotah Norton, Joe Breeden and Seth Sherlock were in attendance, and all were hoping for big things. We should just point out here that Aaron has won this race four times in Val di Sole, including his demolition ten years ago in 2012 when he won by 7.850 seconds!
Coming into this final round Aaron sat in 12th position. With two fourth places and two eleventh places he has had a solid season, but a good result here could push him up into the top 10 overall.
Dak was in twenty first overall coming into the race. His ‘mixed bag’ of results don’t really tell the whole story. An eleventh position in Lourdes and a 9th in Leogang give no indication of how well he was doing in Fort William and Lenzerheide before he crashed out at both races. Two missed podiums? Possibly. Dak would have been fully aware that a top 20 overall finish would mean more TV air time in 2023. So all was still to play for.
And of course Aaron and Dak were coming off the back of two great results at the World Championships in Les Gets. Aaron’s eighth place and Dak’s seventh (both just around one second off the medal positions) was a sign that they were on it.
After breaking his elbow in Fort William Joe Breeden has had a tough year. Downhill racing is a rough old sport, so for Joe to get injured, go through recovery and rehab and to be back racing just three months later is testament to his character and determination. Joe would be looking for a result to end his year on a high.
Seth Sherlock is still the young gun of the team, and having performed brilliantly in the Under 21 category at the Enduro World Series he decided to shift his focus mid season to concentrate on that overall title. The World Cup series has taken a bit of a back seat this year, but the steeps, roots and rocks of Val di Sole looked to be right up his street.
With 167 riders on the start list and only 60 slots available for the finals on Saturday, qualification was going to be tight. As a protected rider Aaron was safe, and mathematically he did actually have an outside chance of making the top five in the overall… even the top three! For the other three riders it was all on the line, Friday was race day for them… well, qualification day, but you know what I mean!? And interestingly, as the final race of the season there were no points available for the overall in qualification. Current leader Amaury Pierron could have won the title at the previous round in Mont Sainte Anne, but he would have to wait for finals to claim his prize and the single point he needed.
The IFR team’s qualifying results were positive, very positive. Dak in 3rd, Aaron in 5th, Seth in 39th, but unfortunately for Joe he was back in 73rd and out of the main event. He’ll be back. Come race day all hell was about to be let loose. It didn’t start too well, as Seth was red flagged on his run, so then had to do a re-run. Unfortunately his re-run coincided with the brief rain shower that made the track trickier to ride for about 10 to 20 riders. Seth will be disappointed with 55th, but that was the (bad) luck of the draw.
As I sat watching the Red Bull live feed, stress levels began to go up. Bernard Kerr had put in a blistering time and had been sat in the hot seat in the finish arena for some time. With five riders to go Aaron Gwin dropped in. Zig zagging his way through the rocks and roots you could tell that he was pushing. He was green at the first split… 1min 56sec into the track and he was in the lead by almost a second! I may have been almost a thousand miles away, but once again I found myself screaming at the TV screen as Aaron made his way down the mountain. I couldn’t watch.
I only really started watching again when I knew he was past the infamous ‘Sam Hill’ corner and then the one after that where Henry Kerr had fallen earlier in the day. He was on the final straight, nothing could really go wrong now. It was going to be tight, but he crossed the line 0.541sec in the lead. Aaron Gwin was back, and guaranteed a podium finish.
Next was Benoit Coulanges. Nope. Aaron was guaranteed fourth. Then it was Dakotah’s turn. I’d calmed down a bit by this point, but again soon resorted to screaming at the TV as Dak went green at split one by 0.326sec. He was hitting his lines, inch perfect in their execution. Something didn’t seem right at first, he almost looked like he was cruising, a mechanical maybe? Where Aaron had been pin-balling around a little, Dak looked comfortable, flowing like water. Split two showed that nothing was wrong, still in the green. Dak was literally Zen like as he went down the mountain. Split four? 1.396 in the green… this was actually happening. Crossing the line he kept that gap, slotting into first place 1.362 in the lead from team mate Aaron Gwin. No matter what happened next, this was a victory already.
Then Loris Vergier came down! What can you say? Phenomenal. Into the lead by 3.129sec. Crazy. Then the in-form Andreas Kolb. Another great run and second place for the Austrian, just pushing Dak into third. And that’s how it would finish – Vergier, Kolb, Norton, Gwin and Kerr. This would be Dak’s best World Cup result, Aaron’s return to form and to top things off, IFR won team of the day.
It was an epic end to the season, for the riders, the whole team (both in Italy and back in HQ) and of course the prototype M279 HP1 bike. Performing so well on the roughest, scariest, most technically challenging track of the year is cause for celebration. The levels of concentration and quality of bike and set-up have to be spot on… everything performed. It’s just a shame that the season is over and that we have to wait almost nine months until round one of the 2023 season!
When the dust had settled Aaron finished safety inside the top ten overall in 8th place. Dak back in 16th, meaning that both will be protected for the first round next year, and that Aaron will be protected all year (so will not have the need to qualify hanging over him).
Congratulations must of course go out to all the winners on the day and to Amaury Pierron, Camile Balanche, Jackson Goldstone and Gracey Hemstreet for taking the overall titles. Also a shout out to all the injured riders. Val di Sole is brutal, and quite a few of the big names came unstuck. We wish them all a speedy recovery. And finally, we have to say a big thank you for the last ten years and a ‘please don’t go’ to the voice of downhill, Rob Warner. With the Discovery Channel taking over the running of the World Cup next season, and Rob choosing to renew his contract with Red Bull, we won’t get the chance to enjoy his commentary any more. As the great man says, ‘just look at the time’.