Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Nathan Hughes

The last time the World Cup visited Val di Sole in Italy the INTENSE Factory Racing (IFR) team were close to perfection. Aaron Gwin and Dak Norton had both put in great race times, leaving them in third and fourth on the podium, and to top it all, IFR won team of the day. It was a great end to the 2022 season, and a great reflection of Aaron and Dak’s downhill skills as they (almost) tamed the infamous Black Snake… arguably the toughest track on the circuit. 
Fast-forward 10 months and things were a little different. Even before track walk had begun the team was cut in half and down to just two riders, with injuries for both Aaron and Seth Sherlock at previous races. So just Dak and Joe Breeden would be representing the team out in Italy. 
The track in Val di Sole is nasty. It’s a relentless barrage from the get-go, but fortunately this year some of the huge holes and hollows had been filled in pre-winter with dirt, and the track had been slightly rerouted in an attempt to slow it down a little. The new dirt looked good, but as hundreds of riders made their way down in practice it turned into an unpredictable dust bowl. Rocks and roots became hidden, riders weren’t quite sure what to expect every time they hit a loose patch of dust. In some places grip was hard to find, confidence too. 
The new 2023 format means that the field is cut down to 60 riders in a qualification round, this time on Friday. Dak was in the top twenty in the overall points chase so that meant that he was a protected rider in qualis. He could crash (which he did) but all would be OK. For Joe the pressure was on. With 166 riders on the start sheet all looking for a top 60 finish it was never going to be easy, but Joe did it. A solid run left him safely in mid-pack all ready for the semi finals (and hopefully finals) on the Saturday.  

What can we say? It didn’t go well. First off was Joe, who was on a steamer of a run until the infamous ‘Sam Hill Corner’. Where Hill lost grip and went down, Joe also lost grip… or should I say, lost his grip! In the ever-deepening braking bumps his left hand just blew off the bars. He somehow managed to hold on with one hand, chest to the stem momentarily and then he straightened himself. A few flailing grasps and eventually found the grip again, but by this time it was too late. He’d overcooked the corner and went straight on into a scary as hell nosedive… it didn’t look like it was going to end well. Somehow he managed to ride it out, but his race was done. 
Frustratingly for Joe his split times were bang on the money, 26th, 14th, 14th again and then 18th at the last split. If he’d just held on for two more corners and the finish line jump he would have been safely into the finals. 
After 2022’s success on this track something just didn’t seem right with Dak. After his quali crash he needed to put down a good performance in the semi. Unfortunately just after a relatively slow left turn he veered slightly off line as he traversed to the next right hander. His front wheel went off the track and he dropped down below the tape (but still inside the track). His bike then became frustrating caught up in the tape and the tree stump that the tape was wrapped around. After a bit of struggle he was free, but again, just like Joe, he knew his race was done. 
“Val di Sole is the hardest race of the year, and this year we were just not good enough to be successful here. It’s humbling to race at the highest level, and disappointing to underperform at what is my favorite venue.” Dakotah Norton 
So that was it, the first ‘half’ of the World Cup season done and dusted. With three rounds gone and five rounds to come there is now a pause, almost a two month break until Andorra at the end of August, time to reset and rethink the plan of attack. Of course both Dak and Joe still have races to do, back home there are national events, and (depending on selection) the all important World Championships in Fort William (Aug 4-5). We are also waiting to see when Aaron Gwin and Seth Sherlock will be back racing between the tapes. Only time will tell on that front. 
Downhill is a tough old game. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Both Dak and Joe scored points, but it is probably a race the team will want to forgot. Dak is now 19th in the overall standings, with Joe in 48th. Onward and upward.