At The Sharp End | Part 1 | Lourdes World Cup.

At the Sharp end follows your Elite Women’s Downhill National Champ KJ Sharp as she tackles the 2022 UCI Downhill World Cup.

For the first part of At the Sharp End, we head to Lourdes, France with your current British National Downhill Champion, KJ Sharp, to take a look into what racing World Cups looks like through the eyes of an up-and-coming rider.

Photo by Ian Lean.

Last year marked my first DH season. Lacking experience, I took on UK nationals, 3 World Cups and the World Champs. I enjoyed the nationals, however, found World-level racing overwhelming to attack alone. After many discussions throughout winter, I joined the 555 RAAW Gravity Racing Team. A Scottish team brought together to help privateers at World-level races.

The team are supported with bike frames produced by RAAW; a German brand run by 6 people devoted to creating beautifully engineered bikes. I am also fortunate to have Sprung Suspension behind me, loaning me suspension and helping to keep my bike feeling supple throughout the year.

Photo by Ross Bell.

Onto the racing…

Arriving in Lourdes Tuesday evening, I aimed to head into the first World Cup of the year with work locked up within my laptop until Monday morning. Logging out of my work account 4pm Wednesday evening, I cracked on with building my bike. Around 7pm I cooked up spaghetti bolognese for the team, ate said bolognese, completed 30 minutes of mobility and popped off to bed around 9pm feeling slightly rushed and ready for some thinking space.

Thursday morning felt bliss. I love my job, but I also love watching DH related content whilst drinking tea. The track opened for walking at 10am. Luke Williamson (Elite teammate) and I planned to head in for 10am, however, a last-minute message warned us off. The morning track walk sounded busy, so I spent the remainder of the morning stretching and watching Lourdes DH headcams.

After lunch and a 15 minute train journey, around 2pm the 555 team arrived at the top of the World Cup track. As hoped, the track was quiet. At first glance it looked messy, with many line choices, terrain, and gradient changes. To me, everything looked huge. The whoops looked awful and that last drop into the finish line… blimey.

Photo by Ross Bell.

It’s impossible to stay within your comfort zones at world cups, however, no matter how uncomfortable, if it means I will qualify, I need to be hitting all the features.

We got back to our apartment at 6pm. After prepping all for the morning (bikes/food/kit/headcams/spare-clothing/tyres/components), another big pan of food and I was ready for sleep by 9pm.

Friday, 6:30am, quick wash, straight into my riding kit followed by 30minutes of trying to force down some breakfast. Future KJ must further investigate fasted training, the early breakfasts were tough to stomach.

After a 30 minute warm up, I got into the uplift queue at 8:15am hoping to be at the top of the track prior to the 8:45am start. Unknown to us all, the uplift queue moved at 0kmh. I was close to the front of the queue yet didn’t make it to the top until 9:30am. Initially practice ended at 12:45pm for group B, however, the organisers extended practice to 2pm. Sounds great, but I still only managed 4-runs with the queuing. On my last run I decided to spend more time on track to tick off every feature. This meant pushing my bike up the hill a bit, but it was worth it. Hitting those road gaps for the first time, on my own, that felt great.

Once my last run was over, a quick change (get those elbow pads off) and back up the hill to watch A-group practice. 2 hours of inspecting lines at every possible part of the track, seeing which were looking fast and making sure I’d not missed any sneaky lines. The track ended up being simple with minimal line variations, however, I did see a few new lines to try out in Saturday mornings practice.

Photo by Ross Bell.

Saturday morning, I woke up ready for another 2hrs of sleep. 6am, washed, changed, 6:30am breakfast, 7am warm-up, 7:30am back in the uplift queue ready for 8:15am practice. Practice was dewy and slippery. I tested the few lines I’d picked up on yesterday’s track walk, however, only managed 2-runs prior to the 10am cut off. This wasn’t enough for things to feel drilled in.

With my qualifying run at 14:42pm, I went for a much-needed nap in the back of the mechanic’s van. After passing out for 2 hours and a bit of lunch, I was ready to warm up for qualifying. With the slow uplift, I decided to warm up at the top of the track. Dan Roberts, from RAAW Mountain Bikes joined me. One of the best people to have with you, he’s good at adapting to each scenario and in this case making sure I was feeling comfortable. 30 minutes of burpees, lunges and short sprints later and the time had come to buckle up my helmet and attack

In the queue to the start line, I felt relaxed yet excited to get in a solid yet safe run. I didn’t know if my pace was on to qualify, however, I knew I had my lines and I knew I could hit all the features. Either way, I was ready to find out.

Beep, beep, beep, go time. I entered the first part of the track too heavy on my brakes, however, by the time I got to the wall (a 30 meter chute too steep to walk) I started to get comfortable and let the brakes go. Into the fast motorway section, through steep loam and straight into slippery rocks. This track was awesome. I lost my line slightly as I came out of the rocks but managed to keep the wheels rolling. Catching a rider heading into the corner prior to one of the 2nd road-gap, unfortunately losing speed, I pulled off the take off with hope, but landed a wheel short ejecting me into the air.

As I fell to the ground, I quickly protected my head with my arms and turned my right side towards to ground. Bouncing heavily off my right butt cheek, my body then followed to toss and turn another 30 meters. Once stopped, I rolled 1 meter to the right, under the tape and clear of the track. For a few moments, before the medics got to me, I laid staring at the trees shooting up to the bright blue sky.

I was relieved to still have that relaxed state of mind that I’d felt at the top of the track. Within the hour I was transported to the medic tent where a doctor poked each vertebra, all around my hips and asked me multiple memory and pain level questions. Once the doctor had assessed me, I was grateful to have a sugar lump soaked with painkiller placed into my mouth allowing me to wobble back to my team.

One pizza and a couple of beers later, my body was ready for bed, however, my brain had alternative ideas. 3am Sunday morning I switched the light on and started writing down my stressors… “how lucky can you be, think on what you are doing, crash, not okay, it would have broken most people, next time, don’t risk it and ask for a re-run!”. 10 minutes later, I was asleep.

Sunday, I spent at the bottom of the track, with friends, watching the racing. Even with a sore body I felt the hype to race boil up inside me. If you’ve not watched the race, you need to.

Monday, the flight home meant I could crack on with work. Getting home 11pm Monday night, I got to the hospital for a CT scan 8am Tuesday morning. Whilst the French doctors cleared me, after a crash like that, I wanted to make sure I 100% had the green light. With relief, other than a hematoma on my bottom cheek, all came back clear giving me the headspace required to recover and prepare for Fort Bill.

Keep tabs on KJ’s racing exploits on her Instagram feed here.

Read our Wise Words with KJ on our Features page here.