Pene and Widmann win in Italiy
It's mid-July, summer feels pretty normal so far in most European countries, also the iXS European Downhill Cup is running just as normally. The second race was able to attract a top-class field of participants to Pila in Italy. Almost 300 riders from 27 different nations were keen to battle on this amazing racetrack and thus a first-class competition was guaranteed.
As always, the organizers of the race spared no effort and prepared an event suitable for the occasion. The former World Cup track alone is a definite guarantee for a downhill spectacle, but with great attention to detail, high up in the Aosta Valley one can always top it off. And last but not least, the cherry on the cake, the incredible mountain panorama, which offers a unique view of the Monterosa and the Matterhorn all the way to Mont Blanc.
But back to the track again. The course with a length of 2,700 meters eliminates 460 meters of difference in altitude. Many high-speed sections alternate with root and stone passages and then there is a really steep section in between, for which Pila should be well known. In the past, the downhill legend Corrado Herin, who unfortunately died in an accident, was responsible for the track building, but his successors can also uphold the quality standards. There was even a new section for this year's race, which was seamlessly integrated into the characteristics of the former World Cup slope and thus again exactly met the taste of the field of participants.
As usual, Friday was available for the track walk and official training. After getting a first impression on foot and making initial decisions regarding the line choice, the riders had six hours to check the practicality of the selected lines and, if necessary, to readjust them at one point or another. In the best summer conditions, the athletes reeled off their training runs and were therefore optimally prepared for the following days of competition.
Remi Thiron (FRA - Giant Factory Off-Road Team) was definitely one of the favourites
On Saturday, a few hours of training time were again on the program in the morning. In the afternoon things got serious and the qualification started. For most of the classes it was a seeding run that determined the starting order of the finals as well as providing points for the overall standings. For the Elite Men class, however, it was about much more, because the Super Final will be held in the European Cup on Sunday and only those who qualify among the 30 best have the chance of winning the race. For quite a long time a small sensation seemed to be looming among the men, because New Zealander Tuhoto-Ariki Pene (The Union) held the best time for half an eternity. Only the last rider Matt Walker (GBR - Madison Saracen Factory Team) was faster and secured himself a remarkable time 3:35.843 minutes and a lead of 4.3 seconds ahead. The fastest in the Elite Women class was his Italian team-mate Veronika Widmann, who was only barely able to beat the time set by Izabela Yankova (BUL - Riders United).
Matt Walker is currently fifth in the UCI world rankings
Sunday started again with optimal conditions. However, one of the most burning questions was whether the weather would hold, as rain and maybe even thunderstorms were predicted. The races usually start with the Pro Masters. Benjamin Herold (GER - TNT Racing) won ahead of Paolo Alleva (ITA - Scoutbike.com) and Luis Ribeiro (POR - Justbikes).
Benjamin Herold takes the lead in the series ranking after the weekend
Next on the track were the youngest participants in the U17 class. After the winner of the series opener Mike Huter (SUI - Gamux Factory Racing) was unfortunately not able to take part due to an injury, Henri Kiefer (GER) started the race as the favorite. In the qualification he was able to dominate the field, but unfortunately not in the final and ended up being knocked out. The winner of the race was Christian Hauser (ITA - 3stars-Alessibici), who was able to put himself in a good position for the series classification with this and after his fifth place in Brandnertal. Samu Kauppinen (FIN - Pyorahuolto.com) was second, seven seconds behind and closely followed by Rudi Eichhorn (GBR - Canyon Collective FMD).
In the Pro U19 female class, the result of the previous day was repeated. Siel van der Velden (BEL - commencal nobl) took first place ahead of Delia da Mocogno (SUI - Bikewelt Factory Racing) and Giulia Sandrin (ITA - Trieste Gravity Team).
The next class was the Elite Women, which with 27 participants was well staffed in terms of both quantity and quality. A rather unknown rider was able to draw attention to herself the day before. The Enduro World Series participant Rae Morrison (NZL - Liv Racing) held the best time in the qualification for a long time and impressively showed that she will be a serious contender for the podium. In the final run, she was third from last on the course and only lined up behind Alia Marcellini (ITA - ASD Camping Arizona).
Rae Morrison was on an enduro bike, certainly not the very best choice
Then Izabela Yankova crossed the finish line, unable to beat the time of the previous day, but still ten seconds faster than the woman in the hot seat. Now only Veronika Widmann was missing, who at least had a lead of around five seconds in the meantime. So now all she had to do was make it to the finish line to end her dominance of the weekend with a win. And the South Tyrolean actually crossed the finish line with a time of 4:02.420 minutes with an impressive gap of nine seconds ahead. The race finished with Widmann ahead of Yankova and Marcellini.
Now the U19 riders went on the course - incidentally, with the conditions still optimal. The best time in qualification was already in the top 5 of the elite men, which impressively underlines the level of performance in this junior category. Almost 50 competitors fought for the day's victory. Especially for this age group, the series represents the ideal springboard for a further career in downhill sports, after all, you have to assert yourself against international competition on courses with World Cup level. You can thus create the necessary self-confidence, which you shouldn't be lacking when climbing into the elite categories. In the end there was a blink of an eye final in which Luis Kiefer (GER) secured victory with 3:53.635 minutes, just ahead of Davide Cappello (ITA - ASD After Skull) who was fastest the day before. Third was Lachlan Stevens-McNab (NZL) as the weather slowly changed and the track gradually got wet.
Super Final Elite Men
Now it was the time for the elite men Super Finals. This became a little more challenging due to the starting rain and therefore no longer allowed the times of the previous day. First, Yannick Baechler (SUI - Baechler Brothers) set a time of 3:51.901 minutes that gave him a longer break remaining on the hot seat. Only eight riders later Luke Meier-Smith (AUS - Propain Factory Racing) was able to undercut. The next starting Davide Palazzari (ITA - Rogue Racing After Skull) and Noel Niederberger (SUI - Privateer Powered by Bike Tech) could not intervene, so only Onni Rainio (FIN - Saracen SportSource), Tuhoto-Ariki Pene and Matt Walker remained. In the meantime, everyone was within striking distance, with Pene and Walker even being able to pull out a lead. The Finn lined up four tenths of a second behind Maier-Smith. Then Pene came in, flying over the finish jump and the scoreboard showed a lead of three seconds. In the end all eyes were on Walker again.
The fastest in qualifying crossed the finish line just under four seconds behind and thus the New Zealander won the race in his second elite year with a time of 3:45.072 minutes. The former New Zealand junior champion should have another fond memory of Italy, after all, he won the World Cup in Val di Sole as a junior in 2019. Matt Walker came second, followed by Meier-Smith, while the five-man podium was completed by Rainio and Baechler.
f.l.t.r. Rainio, Walker, Pene, Meier-Smith, Baechler
Pila once again delivered a worthy stop at the iXS European Downhill Cup and was definitely able to do excellent advertising for the region. In addition to the downhill track, there are numerous other mountain bike offers there, it is always a pleasure to see the dedication with which events are organized there. The next round is the third run in Maribor, Slovenia, which is also used by many as preparation for the European Championship and the subsequent World Cup that will take place immediately afterwards. Some of the greats of the world's elite are already on the list of participants.