At the Sharp End | Part 5 | Vallnord 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.

In part 5 of At the Sharp End, we head to Vallnord, Andorra 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.

Photos by Ross Bell.

4 days on from Lenzerheide and we were back at it in Andorra. The puzzling unfortunately started the day before track walk, with the lacking organisation of pit space. It seemed we were supposed to set up our pits on a different hill to the track.

This meant we’d have to get a 10 minute shuttle then a chairlift to get to the start of the track. If we needed help, food or water in between practice runs, we would have to take the trip back and forth, each time taking up 30 minutes of our allocated 4 hours of practice.

Luckily, after a moments puzzling, the 555 team manager bit the bullet and set our pits up on the side of the road at the bottom of the chairlift. Luckily our pits aren’t massive compared to the bigger teams, so we can quite easily slot ourselves into smaller spaces.

Within a few hours, there was a queue of smaller privateer pits setting up down the side of the road. The officials came by to move us on, however, in numbers we ignored the officials and continued to use the roadside throughout the rest of the week.

Wednesday

With temperatures on the verge of 40 degrees, the track walk was the dustiest I’ve ever seen. The top half of the track consisted of big jumps and drops, the bottom half technical and tight. You could tell straight away that this was going to be a fast track.

Thursday

I woke up refreshed and ready for the allocated 4 hours of B practice. Unlike in Lenzerheide, I felt calm and prepared for the practice laps ahead.

My practice plan:

Run 1: Clear the first three larger features – drop, followed by a jump and into a triple.
Run 2: Clear all the above and the huge road gap.
Run 3: Clear all the above and the smaller drops/jumps throughout the track.
Run 4: Finally clear the last two larger gaps, and the smaller drop into the finish line.
Run 5 & 6: Link everything together.

Unfortunately, I had a little lie down on my 2nd run and landed on the hematoma I’d suffered from since Lourdes. The initial pain was excruciating. I can’t remember a pain so severe. To my surprise, a few minutes later, I was back on the bike as though nothing had happened. I continued to stick to my plan up until Run 4. I spent Run 4, 5 and 6 rolling into the last few gaps I had left to clear, but continued to bottle it every time. Popping up for my 7th and final run, I managed to clear the last drop, but once again bottled the jump.

I pulled over to watch a few people fly over my ever so faithful nemesis. Placing my bike to the floor I turned to see a woman in a stretcher, neck, back and hip brace. She was being prepared for the air ambulance to take her to the hospital. I instantly listened in closer to make sure she was speaking, then squinted my eyes to see if she could move her feet.

I felt relief as words came out of her mouth and her feet showed signs of movement. I don’t know what I could have done if she couldn’t do one of the above, but it was quietly assuming that whoever the young lady was, she most likely was going to be okay and recover.

With my heart still slightly in my mouth, I looked back at the jump and connected the jump to where the young woman was laid in the stretcher. I took a step back and appreciated that some of the gaps I’d already cleared today were the biggest I’d ever experienced. Going back to my Lenzerheide mode, I reminded myself that I’m here to learn, not prove myself.

Friday

Qualifying day, as always, I woke up tenser than normal, however, a lot more relaxed than any other World Cup I’d entered. I pondered through my two practice runs at my own pace, took a 2-hour nap, then made my way up the hill ready for my qualifying run.

I sat in the gate for what felt like forever. ‘Relax, relax, chill, chill, relax, relax’, over and over in my head. The timer hit 10 seconds. I stood up and cranked as soon as I heard the first beep at 5 seconds. Sprinting into the first drop I cleared it nicely, round the first awkward corner, into a berm, over the double, then the triple, round the scary jump I’d failed to clear in practice and into the tech.

Similar to Lenzerheide, my run was tame and uneventful. I kept things safe and simply aimed to get down the hill in one piece. Crossing the finish line in 20th+ place, I felt a sense of relief that I’d made it to the end of the week. I spent the next couple of hours with an ice cold glass of beer in my hand, chatting to fellow racers and watching the elite men’s qualifying.

Saturday

A day, very much well spent with friends, on track, watching the racing, applying many layers of factor 50, eating bacon butties and discussing what the dreamiest converted Transporter camper van would be like. In the end we decided it would be a Tardis.

Sunday

As I walked through Barcelona airport, I could see mountain bikers and people within the mountain biking world standing in queues, taking their 15 minute walk to the gate, some rushing, some with time on their hands, some looking a little worse for wear, potentially a heavy night, or the heat got to them. I felt like I was walking into reality.

I’d been so consumed by a bubble of two wheels that I’d forgotten about the rest of the world. With my lowered performance this year, I’d placed everyone in the biking world on a pedestal. I realised that I’d lowered my self-confidence so far, that I genuinely believed I was the most lacking riding, and therefore should be polite and allow everyone else to go before me, be faster than me and have a non-existing advantage over me.

Walking through the airport, I made the sudden realisation that I am equal to everyone around me. At the end of the day, when push comes to shove, if there’s something you want to do, no matter how bad you think you are, or how lacking your performance may be on the day, you still have every right to be there and every right to have a go.

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

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