“There’s a cool local race in Dolce Acqua you should do while you’re out here” said the email. All sounds good right? The email had come from good friend and Life Cycle/Ibis team rider Manuel Ducci, a couple of weeks ahead of me heading out to see him and his better half & teammate, Valentina Macheda for some riding, checking their progress on the new Sanremo Trail Center and a nice pre-season hangout. Within minutes of me giving my agreement to entering this “local race”, a second email appeared, containing links to video recces of one of the stages – brutal didn’t do it justice! 8 minutes of utter carnage – a mix of super-fast pedally sections along an exposed ridge, into fierce, steep rock gardens. And this was just stage 1 – what had I let myself in for?!?
At this point, it’s worth adding some important background information – Dolce Acqua is right in the hot spot where the Italian region of Ligurea (home to Sanremo, Molini, San Romolo and of course the infamous Finale Ligure of EWS and SuperEnduro fame) meets the Maritime Alps, which host the fearsome Trans Provence. There’s elevation and then some, and the trail network is incredible with massive features, seriously long tracks, and crazy features like WW2 military bunkers cut into the hillside, that some tracks actually cross! A ridiculous number of top flight riders live in and around the region – which brings me onto the start list. How does a start list including 10 times DH world champ Nico Vouilloz, European Enduro champion Karim Amour, 2013 & 2014 SuperEnduro series winners Manuel Ducci & Marco Milivinti, 3 times SuperEnduro Masters winner Francesco Fregona, Rocky Mountain rider Florian Nicolai, 2014 Italian national champion Alex Lupato and many, many more sound? All of a sudden this “local race” took on a very different slant – yes it was a local race for prizes of bottles of wine and bragging rights, but this was very much a first chance for all the riders to see what everyone had been up to over the winter and check out new bikes ahead of the first EWS round in a few short weeks’ time. I was in for something pretty major but at the same time very unique, as I’ve never seen this strong a field outside of an EWS round.
Landing in Nice airport on the Thursday night, the enormity of the weekend ahead hit me – my new frameset had arrived with Manuel at Life Cycle HQ and I would have a frantic build session into the night as I hung my parts onto a new frame, fork and shock. By about midnight, the Edison Evo was looking ready for action – I wasn’t quite in the same state of readiness thanks to tiredness from a problematic house move in the 2 weeks up the the trip, a teething daughter, and nowhere near enough training over the winter! It was too late to back out now – I was fully committed, and so it was time to get some sleep ahead of a solid day of practice on the Friday.
Friday morning came about all too early – after loading up on coffee, pastries and Nutella, we headed up into the hills in the Life Cycle pickup – comedy moments and hilarious “lost in translation” phrases helped silence the nerves for me a little bit. After driving up insanely steep & rocky old tracks (many dating back hundreds of years and then repurposed in WW2), we were at the top, above the clouds and level with the snow across the valley. It was cold, windy, wild but stunning – and stages 1 & 2 would run us right back down to sea level!
Practicing all the stages through the day was an amazing experience – following Manuel through rock sections that I’d not normally even walk was confidence inspiring, but also a stark reminder of just how capable you have to be to be a national champion and top flight world series racer. Towards the end of the day, we bumped into Nico Vouilloz and I managed to have my first crash of the trip trying to follow a super tight line through a series of switchbacks that ran through a rock garden. Suffice to say, Nico’s skill level far outclassed mine and I had a neat little over the bars moment!
Saturday was spent resting, tweaking the bike and making full use of the incredible Italian hospitality – believe me, loading up on awesome pizza and pasta a couple of times a day is no chore! I switched tyres to a set of Super Gravity casing Schwalbes to give a bit more protection on the rocks and that was me all set.
Race day came round and we arrived in Dolce Acqua bright and early to a pretty amazing welcome – in true Italian style, the whole village was involved in the event, so a packed piazza was full of riders and their bikes, picking up last minute coffee fixes and preparing bikes ahead of registration. It’s worth talking about the incredible organisation of the event too – the guys at Supernatural really did pull out all the stops. Bikes (almost 200 of them!) were loaded into vans and trailers, riders got into coaches, and we were driven to the highest accessible point, leaving us a 30 minute ride up to the summit. Absolutely amazing organisation and something that would be amazing here in the UK!
I got to the top in time to see the first pros fly off at 1 minute intervals – these guys were on fire, and the lack of big prizes or series points clearly couldn’t dampen their fierce competitive instincts. By the time my start came round, I was pretty ramped up and feeling good. I got off to a strong start on the first third of the stage, maintaining a good rhythm and flowing the high speed sections nicely, especially the series of jumps and drops that were lined with spectators and photographers. Unfortunately, that good form didn’t stay with me as I binned it on the rock garden in exactly the same spot as in practice and lost 3 places – damn!
Onto stage 2 and I was recomposed – this was a fast, flat out stage, under 2 minutes long and was a real test of nerve and staying off the brakes. I had a great run on this, catching sight of the rider in front (from the Monaco national team no less!) and flying full gas into a packed finish arena, full of locals, riders and spectators all cheering us on as we hit the final few metres of the stage. A quick food stop and then it was time to deal with the 90 minute transfer stage – a hard 11km road climb back to the top of the mountain again. An hour and a half in your bottom few gears on a big bike, in a full face helmet is quite a lonely experience, despite bits of multilingual banter as the ebb & flow of riders shifts. It gave me good time to have a solid think about the new Evo and how pleased I was with it – the new X-Fusion Metric fork absolutely demolishes rocks and once I had taken the time to get damping, air pressure and spring curve sorted, gave tons of support mid-stroke, neutralised trail chatter & delivered awesome traction, and ate up bigger hits. The Magura rear shock’s tune was much better than the previous year’s version – nicely sensitive but not blowing it’s travel – in fact, so well damped that I could get away running the bike in “open” setting all the time rather than needing the platform at any stage. I was definitely falling in love with this seriously bright beast!
Back at the top, I had 15 minutes or so to compose myself ahead of stage 3 – which was seriously hard, a proper pedal fest that favoured riders with an XC background. Less technical but more physically demanding, it forced you to push hard all the way, with some nasty little inclines that emptied legs and lungs – and I managed to cramp badly here. Not enough training, a new baby, a house move and 37 advancing years all caught up with me out there and I had to really fight the pain all the way down – turning the pedals was agony and landing the big drop part way down the stage left my quads feeling like I’d been tasered!
A quick recovery ahead of stage 4 and I was off again – the stiffness from the cramp was making it increasingly hard to turn with my hips, so I was riding like an old man, frustrating to say the least! By this point, I was in survival mode and focused on getting down safe as there was nothing left at all. Somehow, I finished without crashing on any of the drops and jumps, and I was done!
Catching up with everyone at the end, it was apparent there were a huge amount of riders who’d crashed on stage 1, so I felt less bad, and everyone was looking pretty beaten up – even the top guys were talking about how hard it was, and how much stage 3 had taken out of them. Before long, timings started to come through – Nico had decimated the field, winning by over 30 seconds – a ridiculous margin, but I’d seen just how on form he was in practice.
Presentations came round – Nico took the overall ahead of Alex Lupato and Marco Milivinti – Manuel’s crash on stage 1 meant he finished 10th overall but won the Masters’ age category, but very sportingly declined the category win as a top pro, so that second placed Master, Hotlines’ Martin Astley could take the age category win. In the Women’s Laura Rossin took the overall ahead of Valentina Macheda in second and Chiara Pastore in third. Prizes were bottles of wine and local produce – but more importantly bragging rights and a sneaky preview of rivals’ readiness for the EWS.
What did I take away from the trip? Firstly, just how dedicated and hard working the top guys and girls are – we’re talking 5+ hours of training every single day; to compete at global level, you really do need to be super-dedicated. At 37 with a young family and an admittedly pretty awesome full time job, my best racing days are well over, but my hunger for competing is far from abating. And lastly, the new Edison Evo definitely suited me better than anything I’ve ridden and raced on before, and with a few setup tweaks, it feels faster and more stable than my capabilities will need!
Back in the UK, fully recovered, I’m feeling sharp and ready to kick off my season – and as usual, racing out in Europe has highlighted all my weak spots to work on, so it’s easy to train smart now.
Big thanks to everyone who made the amazing trip possible – Roger and the team at Bionicon for getting the bike ready in super-short timescales, Manuel & Valentina for great hosting, the crew at Supernatural for a mental event and of course everyone I met out there! Can’t wait to get back out to this crazy race again next year!
See you at Enduro 1 at the Forest of Dean this weekend!