The Essential Guide to the Vallnord DH World Cup 2018

Ding! Ding! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Round 5 of the 2018 UCI Downhill World Cup.

What a fight for the overall season we’ve got going on. With one of the main contenders Aaron Gwin gracefully withdrawing himself from Vallnord this weekend in order to get his thumb properly fixed, Amaury Pierron snatching a hat-trick of back-to-back wins, Minnaar due for a comeback after nursing an injury from Fort William, and the rise and rise of the young new talent of riders; who could have guessed what the Elite Men’s battle was going to be like just past the midpoint of the season?

It’s not just the Elite Men who are seeing the sands shift; Tahnée Seagrave has regained her momentum towards fighting for the season overall despite it all looking hopeless two races ago, Myriam Nicole suffered a bruised back after a crash in practice on a treacherous Val di Sole track and might be out for a while, and are we seeing Rachel Atherton finally lose her grip on her historic domination over the last few years? There’s no time for Seagrave to relax though; the young guns are waiting in the shadows and we’ve already seen a glimmer of that in the form of Monika Hrastnik, and of course a certain Valentina Höll – the latter a Junior who has yet to race against Elites…

Onto the Pyrenees and onto Vallnord in Andorra. This track is fast and thrilling, and Andorra is the home of Commencal. Their bikes have been doing pretty well this season, so at least in the Elite Men’s field, are we going to see a hometown domination?

The Track

From the wild Val di Sole to the just-as-wild Vallnord. This track is loose and technical, especially in the lower half of the course.

Unusually for most DH World Cups, the team pits are at the top of the track in Vallnord. The track itself starts from the all-weather ‘bubble’ gate, and from the down-ramp riders are straight into the woods and into what is a relatively flat section. A few jumps start appearing to break up the pedalling, and a few wide turns later, riders are out of the woods and onto a high wooden bridge that towers across the tarmac road underneath.

Off the back of the bridge and a couple of sharp turns later, riders are back in the woods where things start to get a little steeper. Another bridge, and then things start to get faster as well. Riders are then faced with the first rock garden which is long and a taster of things to come. Dotting in between trees, we’re now in a more technical section with roots, rocks and jumps to overcome at speed. An off-camber section then follows, with a few tight drops down another steep section of the track.

Still in the trees and still off camber, the trail wallows and throws riders around until it opens up to a couple of bigger turns and out of the woods. Last year we saw the introduction of a new gap jump here, followed by a couple of tables and then some high-bermed switchbacks.

Around this halfway mark, it’s then back into the woods and the rugged roots and rocks, where the track winds itself ever downwards. It doesn’t last long though and riders are soon out of the woods and into another open section featuring a couple of turns and jumps. Riders enjoy the last bit of smooth riding before they head back into the trees and the real rough stuff Vallnord is famous for.

The lower section is full of different lines, but there’s little hope of avoiding the exposed roots of the forest, or the rocks that often have sharp edges. The track twists and turns and there’s little let up for even the fittest of riders. The section gets steeper and more technical as riders progress, with a few twists and turns thrown in too. There are plenty of trees around the track as well as in them – thankfully most of them have nice cushioning strapped to them – but that doesn’t mean riders can relax. Far from it. Tiredness will be kicking in by this point, right before they shoot out of the woods and down across a totally off camber field with a left-hand berm to catch riders before another right-hand turn into another steep off-camber section. Shooting down the field, a massive drop and a tight right-hand turn later, and the Vallnord track is done.

What Happened At The Last Round

In the Elite Women’s race, with Myriam Nicole out of the running, it was Veronika Wildmann who wowed the Italian crowd by getting a strong time in that secured her the hot seat for a good while. Neither Eleonora Farina or Marine Cabirou could match her time, although it was close, and for Cabirou it came undone as she crashed out, giving away her five-second advantage.

Next up was Atherton who had qualified poorly the day before. Atherton was up by 10 seconds by the fourth split and crossed the line moving Wildmann off the hot-seat. Hannah and Siegenthaler were unable to get down the mountainside faster than Atherton, so it was down to Tahnée Seagrave and Monika Hrastnik – the last two remaining riders able to topple Atherton.

Seagrave blasted down the track bristling with confidence, and appeared to be on par with Atherton’s time. It was a close run, with Seagrave crossing the line just 0.12 seconds up from Atherton, knocking her off the hot-seat with one rider left to go. Slovenian rider Hrastnik had surprised everyone by taking a confident first place qualifying time the day before. For race day she didn’t let up either and was breathing down the neck of Seagrave’s time split after split. Crossing the line, Hrastnik was down by 1.6 seconds and slotted into third place behind Atherton, making it her best ever World Cup to date, and keeping Seagrave in the running for the overall.

Credit: Red Bull

After Aaron Gwin re-injured his thumb in practice on Friday, the pits were awash with talk as to whether he would battle on for those all important points for the overall championship. In between talk about the American, it was the in-form Frenchman Amaury Pierron who also got tongues wagging; could he win yet again and make it a three-in-a-row?

It was Commencal 100% rider Thomas Estaque who was seventh in qualifying and come Saturday afternoon, the first rider to make a real dent in the hot seat. He watched on as a nail biting battle commenced in front of him.

Then came Gwin who decided to risk damaging his thumb further for those extra points. Gwin’s ride was steady but lacked the usual gutsy pace we’re so used to. Gwin crossed the line without getting in any kind of position worthy of his courageous and painful ride down the Italian mountainside. Up next was Wallace and then Bruni, but neither of them could reach Estaque’s time, especially not for Bruni as he ended up getting his whiter-than-white race gear all muddy after slipping out in a pile of dust in the woods.

With five riders to go Estaque looked like he couldn’t quite believe it. Greenland entered the foray though and despite a bit of a rocky start, the young Brit raced to the finish line with 2 seconds to spare ahead of Estaque. Vergier and Shaw couldn’t do any better than Greenland, and it was left to Danny Hart to show his old teammate he is still a rider to be respected. Hart put in an exceptional run but lost out on time in the lower half of the track and slotted into second place behind Greenland.

Last but not least was Pierron. After clinching pole position in rain-swept conditions the day before, Pierron now had to do the same but on a dry track. From the get-go Pierron looked confident and made Warner and Claudio go wild in the commentary box thanks to the impressive line choices and flow. Soon it was clear Pierron was gaining on Greenland and it was at the last split he was just ahead. Pierron crossed the line and the timing lights showed green with -0.5 seconds brightly displayed. The Frenchman knocked Greenland off what would have been his first ever podium in Elites – and although that time will undoubtedly come for Greenland – Val di Sole belonged to Pierron who secured the triple.

Credit: Red Bull

Rider Standings

1st /// Amaury PIERRON // FRA // 753 // No change
2nd // Laurie GREENLAND // GBR // 491 // -262 // Moves up from 5th
3rd // Troy BROSNAN // AUS // 488 // -265 // No change
4th // Aaron GWIN // USA // 481 // -272 // Moves down from 2nd
5th // Danny HART // GBR // 451 // -302 // Moves up from 8th
6th // Luca SHAW // USA // 448 // -305 // Moves up from 7th
7th // Loris VERGIER // FRA // 439 // -314 // Moves down from 4th
8th // Samuel BLENKINSOP // NZL // 357 // -396 // Moves down from 6th
9th // Brook MACDONALD // NZL // 327 // -426 // Moves up from 9th
10th // Mark WALLACE // CAN // 277 // -476 // New to top 10

1st // Rachel ATHERTON // GBR // 776 // Moves up from 2nd
2nd // Tahnée SEAGRAVE // GBR // 676 // -100 // Moves up from 3rd
3rd // Myriam NICOLE // FRA // 610 // -166 // Moves down from 1st
4th // Tracey HANNAH // AUS // 560 // -216 // No change
5th // Monika HRASTNIK // SLO // 496 // -280 // Moves up from 7th
6th // Emilie SIEGENTHALER // SUI // 426 // -350 // No change
7th // Marine CABIROU // FRA // 401 // -375 // Moves down from 5th
8th // Katy CURD // GBR // 289 // -487 // No change
9th // Veronika WILDMANN // ITA // 274 // -502 // New to top 10
10th // Mariana SALAZAR // 252 // -524 // No change

What Happened Here Last Year

Last year in Vallnord we were treated to a classic day of racing despite heavy grey clouds ever threatening overhead.

In the Elite Women’s field Rachel Atherton was still trying to overcome her shoulder injury. After four weeks off the bike since Fort William, she qualified down the field in eighth and took to the track a lot sooner than she had become accustomed to. Atherton put in a courageous run but wasn’t able to put in a good enough time to dent the top steps. Meanwhile, Marine Cabirou and Eleonora Farina looked impressive on the steep Andorran mountainside and secured their place on the podium in third and fifth place respectively. Seagrave took to the track and made a run full of interesting line choices that we hadn’t seen so far. She took the fastest time with two more riders to go.

Next up was Myriam Nicole who was desperate to break the bad luck of not having secured a first placed finish since Val di Sole in 2011. Nicole excelled in her race run, crossing the line in front of Seagrave with three seconds spare. Last woman up on track was Hannah who lit the timing screens green for the first two splits, but the track hit back and out the front door the Australian went. Rushing to get back on the bike she soon discovered completing her run would be futile; her brake levers were bust and she had to limp home. Down in the finish line area, the crowd went wild as Nicole took her first UCI World Cup win for a long while, and did so in the hometown of her team.

Credit: Red Bull

In the Elite Men’s race, the track dished out more pain for the likes of Pierron, Fearon and Moir. Meanwhile Mark Wallace was sitting pretty in the hot-seat until Danny Hart took to the track and made the timing screens go green. Hart was looking dominant out on track and sometimes right on the edge of falling victim like others had done before him. Hart would cross the line a mighty five seconds up from Wallace. Other riders came and went; Bruni would miss out beating Hart by a tenth of a second, and the same fate was dealt to Gwin and Loris; all looked fast but they just didn’t seem to be able to piece it together all the way down like Hart had done.

Last riders on track were Minnaar and Brosnan. With Minnaar up first and wearing the leader’s white jersey, he looked his usual supreme self; gliding down the track and slowly gaining on Hart’s time, until the mid-splits where he was up. Minnaar would cross the line two seconds up from Hart. Punching the air, Minnaar knew he had put in a great time. All eyes then looked towards Brosnan who was the last man down the track.

Having been first in qualifying but failing to deliver in finals, what would it take for the Australian to break the cycle? He took to the Vallnord track and started to eat into Minnaar’s time as he pinballed his way down the top section of the track. In the bottom of the track, Brosnan seemed to be losing time to the South African; could he still push through to the finish line? He crossed the line and looked at the screen but the roar of the crowd told the story; Brosnan was fastest by 0.22 seconds. Brosnan would take his second ever DH World Cup win in Elites, and the first ever win for the new Canyon Factory Racing team.

Credit: Red Bull

Previous Winners

2017 // Troy BROSNAN // AUS
2016 // Danny HART // GBR
2015 // Loic BRUNI // FRA*
2013 // Remi THIRION // FRA
2009 // Steve PEAT // GBR
2008 // Gee ATHERTON // GBR

2017 // Myriam NICOLE // FRA
2016 // Rachel ATHERTON // GBR
2015 // Rachel ATHERTON // GBR*
2013 // Rachel ATHERTON // GBR
2009 // Sabrina JONNIER // FRA
2008 // Rachel ATHERTON // GBR

Note: * denotes World Championship race.

The Weather Forecast

Watching It In Person

Just turn up. Yes that’s right, it’s free to watch. If however you want to get the gondola up to save on walking up the mountain and back down again, tickets for the gondola are available to buy at the ticket office at the resort. There’s a special rate on for the weekend, with tickets starting at €6 for a one-day pass, €12 for a four-day pass, or €20 for a seven-day pass.

Must Know, Must See, Must Do

Vallnord is the overarching brand name of what constitutes two big ski resorts in the Principality of Andorra; Vallnord Pal Arinsal and Vallnord Ordino Arcalís. La Massana is the main town that serves the Vallnord Pal Arinsal resort and is one of the most well known Andorran locations for outdoor sports in both the summer and the winter.

Andorra itself holds its own uniqueness. Used as a seasonal hunting ground by us humans as far back as 9,500 BC, only beginning to settle a few thousand years later around 6600 BC. The Romans came and went, then the Visigoths, who brought with them Christianity. Their rule lasted for 200 or so years until the Moors turned up and invaded the region of the Iberian Peninsula. Due to its remoteness, the Andorrans remained unconquered and in return, it is fabled that Emperor Charlemagne granted Andorra a small army to continue to preserve its independence.

It wasn’t long until Charlemagne died and his legacy spread across Europe, with the Frankish Empire dominating what we now know as France and Germany, and the region around Andorra. Under the Empire, Andorra was bestowed to the Count of Urgell where it lasted throughout the Medieval Age. It wasn’t until 1601 with the various royal families of Europe flexing their muscles was Andorra handed to what turned out to be King Henry IV of France. Henry IV would proclaim Andorra a co-principality between the French Chief-of-State and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell.

Things didn’t really change that much in Andorra from then up until the early 18th century when a series of reforms from Napoleon meant that Andorra would see a conflict between those who wanted to keep the status quo of medieval-like laws and administration, to one more in keeping with a modern democracy.

Andorra however was generally left to its own devices, although when World War I broke out it proclaimed war against Imperial Germany (although didn’t stand up an army to do any fighting), and pre-World War II up until 1940, part of the French army was garrisoned in the principality to secure it and France from the bloody goings-on of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Spain. Andorra was never attacked but it did become a smuggling route between Franco’s Spain and Vichy France.

In modern times, Andorra has benefited from being more open, and with better transport has seen its economy flourish thanks to its tourism-centric economy, especially with residents living tax free.

If you’re staying in Vallnord Pal Arinsal then there’s lots to do apart from exploring the Vallnord Bike Park. There’s go-karting, ziplining, quad-biking, horseback riding, via ferratas and of course hiking and climbing, enabling you to enjoy the epic scenery this unique part of the world has to offer.

Not content with enjoying the mountain lifestyle, there are plenty of landmarks and historic buildings to visit. You can see the replica statue of Andorra’s patron saint ‘Our Lady of Meritxell’. The original 12th century Roman Catholic statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary was sadly destroyed in a fire in 1972 but lovely recreated. There are also lots of really old buildings still in good shape to see, including the 9th century church of Santa Coloma d’Andorra, located outside of Andorra la Vella.

Aston’s Predictions

“With Gwin out until MSA after re-injuring his thumb, and Minnaar still out with a broken arm, betting against Pierron and his recent charge would be foolish; his only enemy at this point is his psychology, and that looks to be in good form. Second and third are wide open Andorra’s topography is similar to Val di Sole and there are a bunch of steep specialists that can pull one out the bag – I think last years winner Brosnan will be close, and last weeks 2nd place, Greenland, will take 3rd.

Tahnée’s VDS run was a true victory – the first time she has beaten Rachel in what looked to be a completely fair and square race – no mechanicals, weather, crashes or nagging injuries, Tahnée can carry this form to Andorra and stamp her second real mark. Now Rachel knows that she is beatable,

Paul Aston

Pinkbike’s World Cup Predictionator

she will be digging deeper to her limits, but I think we will see another second place. Nicole will surely be out after her back injury, and will be gutted to miss the Commencal home race, leaving third spot open to Hannah. The unknown Hrastnik, though, did put down an incredible run last week, proving that qualifying first was no fluke – hopefully, she can surprise us again.”

1 // PIERRON, Amaury
2 // BROSNAN, Troy
3 // GREENLAND, Laurie

1 // SEAGRAVE, Tahnee
2 // ATHERTON, Rachel
3 // HANNAH, Tracey


The Schedule

Tuesday 10 July
• 15:00-16:00 Downhill Course Walk by Broadcaster

Wednesday 11 July
• 08:30-11:00 // Downhill Course Inspection by UCI
• 11:00-12:00 // Downhill On Board Course Preview
• 13:00-14:00 // On Foot Downhill Course Inspection – Elite Teams
• 14:00-16:00 // On Foot Downhill Course Inspection – All Riders

Thursday 12 July
• 08:00-11:30 // Official Downhill Training – Group B
• 11:45-15:15 // Official Downhill Training – Group A
• 15:30-17:00 // Downhill Timed Training Session
• 17:00-17:45 // On Foot Downhill Course Inspection – Riders and Teams

Friday 13 July
• 08:00-09:45 // Official Downhill Training – Group B
• 10:00-11:45 // Official Downhill Training – Group A
• 12:15 // Seeding Run – Junior Women
• 12:30 // Qualifying Round – Junior Men
• 13:30 // Qualifying Round – Elite Women
• 14:00 // Qualifying Round – Elite Men
• Followed by // 30 minutes On Foot Downhill Course Inspection – Riders and Teams

Saturday 14 July
• 08:00-09:00 // Official Downhill Training – Junior Women, Junior Men, Elite Women
• 09:45 // Final – Junior Women
• 10:15 // Final – Junior Men
• 11:00-12:00 // Official Downhill Training – Elite Men
• 12:30 // Final – Elite Women
• 13:30 // Final – Elite Men

Note: All times are local and subject to change by the UCI/event organiser.

The Coverage

Racing across Europe the world’s mountain bike media – including our very own crew – will soon be arriving in Vallnord (unless they’ve beaten this article to it), and ready to provide you with photos epics, tech sneak-peeks, and results as they come in. We’ll also have WynTV and last but not least, Inside The Tape from Ben Cathro.

For the Elite Women and Elite Men finals, you can watch the action on Red Bull TV on Saturday 14 July at 12:30 CEST (Elite Women coverage) and 14:00 CEST (Elite Men coverage).

Here’s a breakdown of what these times mean in these main locations (w = Elite Women’s coverage, m = Elite Men’s coverage):

• 03:30 (w) // 05:00 (m) // Saturday // Vancouver, Canada (PDT)
• 06:30 (w) // 08:00 (m) // Saturday // Washington DC, USA (EDT)
• 11:30 (w) // 13:00 (m) // Saturday // London, UK (BST)
• 20:30 (w) // 22:00 (m) // Saturday // Sydney, Australia (AEST)
• 22:30 (w) // 00:00 (m) // Sunday // Auckland, New Zealand (NZST)

Note: These times are subject to change. Please check with your local provider.

Click here to enter Pinkbike’s Fantasy Downhill presented by Trek.

MENTIONS: @Fahhhmed / @paulaston / @davetrumpore / @natedh9 / @rossbellphoto / @tahneeseagrave / @AaronGwin1

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