At the Sharp End | Part 3 | Leogang 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 second part of At the Sharp End, we head to Leogang, Austria 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.

Leogang 2021 was my 1st World Cup Experience. I seem to remember a strong sense of nausea throughout the week, and crashing 5-6times in not just my qualification run, but in every practice run too.

Coming into Leogang 2022, I felt excited that I had this chance to redeem myself. Track walk was amazing, the sun shined, and all sprained ankles were avoided. Sure enough, as I’d prepared for, the rain arrived Wednesday evening and did not leave until Friday afternoon.

Photo by Ross Bell

Thursday

Thursday morning, heading into my first practice run, that 2021 nausea’s feeling returned. I continued down the hill with caution and tried to scope out the track as much as my widening focus would allow. To my surprise I hit all my lines in the stump section, cleared the jumps, and avoided all crashes in the woods. Bish bash bosh, goodbye nausea, hello narrowing focus, let’s go have some fun.

Four runs later, with a respectable level of confidence, I was taking all my chosen lines, hitting the triple on the motorway, and thoroughly enjoying the feeling of my bike slipping and sliding through the steep woods. I finished practice caped in mud and a huge smile on my face. Looking back, I can’t remember talking to anyone, in fact I can’t remember seeing anyone. I felt consumed with simply enjoying the track and riding my bicycle. Knowing I only had 4-hours, I thoroughly made the most of it.

After my final practice run, knowing the queue would soon build up, I popped straight to the bike wash and returned my bicycle back to its sparkling self, thank you Juice Lubes. Avoiding criminally popping my bike clothes straight into the washing machine, my friend keenly took on the role to also power wash me down.

A quick change before I removed myself from the biking world and into a local hotel restaurant with my first meal of the day on order – Burger, salad, chips and ginger ale. It felt nice to sit in the warmth, with the rustling restaurant noise behind me and a sweet bit of quiet headspace in front of me.

An hour later, around 2pm, I ordered a latte to takeaway and headed back to the pits, puzzled over my bike for a while before going home to wash my kit, shower, eat more food and drink tea. It was dinner by the time everything was prepped for the morning. I quickly threw together a large pan of stir-fry for the team. Unfortunately, one of my teammates, Ryan, broke his collarbone during practice, so tonight’s dinner was a little quieter than normal. Once everyone had returned home from the hospital, we all gathered round for some hot chocolate brownie before retiring for the night. I fell asleep around 9:30pm feeling confident yet relaxed.

Photo by Ross Bell.

Friday

I woke nervous, anxious and my HR slightly elevated. Unfortunately, a feeling many of us know all too well. I tried talking myself out of it, ‘just get into this morning’s practice run, this overwhelming feeling can still pass’. Heading down the hill, I could feel how broad my focus had become. I was suddenly seeing all the other riders, the cameras with their piercing eyes and spectators in the background.

Even though the weather remained unchanged, my head was convincing me otherwise. I noticed the rain and mud with negativity, and the roots felt to protrude higher than normal. I quickly resorted to getting down the hill slowly and safely. Casing all the jumps, missing out the triple, I rolled into the steep wood section, with fear, paused on the 2nd bridge before the steep shoot. Slotting myself into an unnoticeable area, I started this 45-minute internal battle with myself. ‘I cannot ride down that chute. Wait, yes, I can. No, I can’t. I can. I can’t’. On and on I went, as each rider seemed to roll by with ease. My heartbeat in my ears, I stopped to look at my watch. 10 minutes of practice left…

Noting, once practice was over, the marshals would be kicking me off the side of the track. I clunked my shoes against my pedals in an attempt to clear the muck out of my cleats. Leant up against a tree, I slotted my feet in and cautiously rolled towards the shoot. Pushing my handlebars forward, I popped off the first drop into the steep chute, then the second before pushing my bike into the bottom corner and smoothly out again. Making it to the bottom of the track effectively, I screwed my face up in disbelief that I’d allowed myself to so be worked up, for nothing.

With the Austrian World Cups remaining one of the most organised events of the season, everything, as normal, was running perfectly on time. Heading into the start hut, I felt apprehensive for my qualification run. I could see all the people lined up against the fence with their eyes on me. I jumped into the first corner and back out into an off-camber straight. Within seconds I was out of control and almost heading over the handlebars.

Noticing everything around me, all the people, all the cheers and what felt like all the cameras, my riding remained messy and unfocused. Heading into the steep woods, I felt myself fighting the nerves. Over the 2nd bridge, down the chute, round the corner and crunch. The bike slipped from beneath me, I quickly pulled it back, went to pull my fingers around the brakes and nothing. My back brake lever out of my reach. Knowing we only had 20 second gaps, I quickly stepped to the side of the track to let the next racer past. In my head, ‘Game Over’.

Photo by Ross Bell.

Immediate Personal Reflections…

Last year, win after win, after podium, after just a right good time on two wheels. This year, 10th, DNF, 11th, DNS, DNF.

Do lulls persist? If so, for how long? Is there a short-cut to get out of this hole, this continuous chain of mistakes? Can I free myself of this bout of bad luck?

3-days Post-Race Thoughts:

Focus… what is it and how can I learn to balance it, control it? The learning continues.

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

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