Words by Justin Leov | Images by Jérémie Reuiller

It has been a busy few weeks since the last EWS round in Scotland. I have been on the road with Trek World Racing helping the Downhill guys go fast at the World Cups. Coming from Leogang, Austria I was excited to get back into my own racing after watching fellow Kiwi riders Brook Macdonald and George Brannigan both step onto the podium. I learnt a lot from being on the sideline of the Downhill World Cup and much of it I wanted to apply to the French round of the EWS in Valloire.

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Road tripping from Leogang to Valloire was a combination of Italian espresso stops and epic photo opportunities via Mount Blanc. Caffeinated and well rested I was ready for a big weekend in the mountains.

Back to the French format of racing, 1 practice run and then into the racing, there is no advantage here with this format, everyone races at the same level.

Course walk Friday revealed we would be racing on virgin courses, a lot of which was raw rock, totally natural forest sections and in some places the grass had been freshly cut in the last week. Back to the French format of racing, 1 practice run and then into the racing, there is no advantage here with this format, everyone races at the same level.

Race day one:

Stage 1 was a rocky start to a mixture of fast sections, climbs and an epic wooded section. My Carbon Trek Remedy 29er was feeling good on the terrain and after my practice run I was too. Into the stage race and I had a good smooth run to start the weekend coming in 3rd. My confidence was high and with the time gap to first I knew I had it in the tank for the next stage. A few odd chain noises in my run and some skipping in the gears revealed I had a mashed a link on a loose rock, on with a fresh chain for the next stage.

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Stage 2 and this stage was to be raced twice today. This course was the longest, mostrocky and physically demanding of the weekend. It had a unique start straight into a short snow section, which with the hot weather was rapidly melting and getting some big ruts in it. A lot of riders would hit the snow and in the blink of an eye their front wheel was swallowed and over the bars they went. This lead straight into a technical uphill which could cost you anywhere from 10-20 seconds depending which card you were dealt. I had a strategy for the section; hit it fast, be aggressive and brace for what ever happens next. It seemed to work well and I flew through. I knew the first challenge over and now it was a matter of keeping the intensity up. The run was going good but I was riding too aggressive for this style of course. I wasted some energy in a few seat of my pants moments and saving myself from cartwheeling down the hill, however I crossed the finish line and managed my first stage win. That was a pretty awesome feeling! I have known for a while I could win a stage but to do it finally was a great.

I had a strategy for the section; hit it fast, be aggressive and brace for whatever happens next.

Having just raced stage 2 and going up to repeat it for stage 3 I said to my mechanic and team manger that I was going to tidy up my run and settle down a bit. Slow down to go faster! I was at the top a little earlier for this stage so I decided to walk down to the snow and check out how it was looking in the plus 30 degree heat. The ruts had doubled in width and depth. My strategy from before needed reviewing, so I found the deepest rut which looked the most solid underneath. I planned on hitting it smooth and a touch slower to make sure I wasn’t pulled off my bike. As I dropped in I setup wide to get straight on to the rut and held my breath, the big wheels just flew through the rut. I passed the section clean once again then focused to nail the rest of the epic run. By backing off just a little and focusing on a clean ride through the sections that caught me out before I could feel the time I was making on my previous run. Smooth pedal strokes, some big efforts from the legs and I crossed the line to put in one of the best runs I could of asked for. Another stage win! I was on a high, I lead after the first day with just over 30 seconds advantage. What a day!

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Race Day two:

So it seemed the previous days riding had taken its toll on my bike I needed a set of pedals, new chain, derailuer and a tire change. My wheels now resembled eggs rather than their original shape. Ray did an awesome job with my bike and going up for the first stage of the day all that was on my mind was ride smart. I could afford to lose some seconds but crashes and mechanicals weren’t an option if I wanted to keep the lead.

Stage 4 a shorter course with some gnarly rocks and a steep wooded section that was again all natural. Nothing beats the feeling of drifting around on loose fresh soil. After bumping up the tire pressure, the plan was to treat the rocks gently and to ride smooth. The stage went well and I finished in a good position of 7th, but was disappointed having ridden a little too conservatively. It seems unnatural riding to be careful, but it’s the smart thing to do when trying to maintain a lead. It seems my competition had some problems on this stage and I was definitely surprised to see my time gap had been extended out to 38 seconds. Two more race stages left.

So it seemed the previous days riding had taken its toll on my bike I needed a set of pedals, new chain, derailuer and a tire change. My wheels now resembled eggs rather than their original shape.

Stage 5 and this was a faster longer stage with a couple of climbs to get the legs burning. I had a good feeling about this stage, it was one that had its risks but with a solid setup and a bit of luck I could hold on to my time. Well I thought so at least! Before leaving the pits Ray picked up on a cut to my rear tire. On with a fresh tire and even a little more pressure (just to be safe) I knew I had the best chance of getting through. This was the strongest tire we had in our possession.

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I dropped in off the start line and hit the rocky sections with care coming through clean. But after this I misjudged a section and in the blink of an eye I was off the course, dam it. I pulled my bike back up on the course and having lost maybe 5 seconds I knew it was still totally fine. It wasn’t long and I was back into the groove with my run. What happened next is the one thing I didn’t want to hear, the sound of a small rock cutting through the casing of my tire. That awful sound of hissing as the air deflated along with my dreams of my first EWS victory. I hoped I could ride the rim all the way to the finish and get down without loosing too much time. Within a few mins I knew this wasn’t the case and my weekend was over, I was absolutely devastated. A 38 second lead with two stages left and now 2 mins down.

That awful sound of hissing as the air deflated along with my dreams of my first EWS victory.

I sat in the pits and thought about what just happened, why? What could of I done different? Why, Why, Why? Racing can be so cruel sometimes! I made a plan, no point in giving up. One more stage and I had nothing to lose. No more conservative riding, on with a fresh tire and on the lift with one goal in mind, to win the last stage. Redemption.

I did a good warm up for the last stage and on the line I was ready to leave nothing on the hill. My run clicked into place and crossing the line I had set a good time. Watching the other racers come down and realise I had once again won another stage was something positive to take away from a devastating day.

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I had brought myself back into 11th overall for the weekend. Not a win for the round, but enough to keep me in 2nd overall in the points for the series. That is something to be thankful for! What a weekend, I’m totally beat. There was a lot of learning at this round and my experience is building.

Thank you to all the support from the people who get me here:
Trek Factory Racing Enduro, Bluegrass Protection, Met Helmets, Fox Racing Shox, Shimano, Bontrager, Adidas Eyewear, Stages Power Meters, CNP Nutrition

Three weeks until La Thuile in Italy and if one thing is for sure, it’s going to be a great battle!

Justin

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