Strongholds built by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago, pub foods so hot they could only be cooked by the breath of dragons, and local ales flowing like the copious downpours of race day Sunday (more on that one below). These are the makings of one glorious holiday but alas, the finest part, the pièce de résistance, has yet been served. Enter the 2014 King of the Valleys, the race to bind it all, the one that speaks the languages of many, and the reminder to all that Ultra4 racing is moving in only one direction, the one that is way, way up.
Two years ago, with the internationally acclaimed King of the Hammers (KOH) on the hearts and minds of every gear-head on the planet, it was Neil Whitford who stepped up to recreate - forget that, build from scratch - the first ever European Ultra4 racing circuit. With Dave Cole, KOH co-founder and owner, by his side, Neil designed the first ever international Ultra4 race, with proper European flare of course, and named it King of the Valleys. Fast forward 2 years, and this birthplace of Ultra4 European racing, taking place in Walters Arena of Swansea, Wales, has gotten faster, more technical, and more competitive each and every outing.
The 2014 King of the Valleys (KOV) marks the 3rd installment of 4 for this year's Ultra4 European circuit, and while this venue already grew in numbers significantly from 2012 to 2013, we still enjoyed another 15% racer growth for 2014. As in typical European Ultra4 fashion, racing consisted of a short Prologue on Day 1 (think qualifying for starting order), and 3-lap racing each for Days 2 & 3. The winner is judged on total time to complete all laps, making both speed and navigation critical for victory.
Racing excitement wasted no time getting settled into Wales, and we were given plenty to digest right from the start of the Day 1 Prologue. Two of the fastest guys on the field, Levi Shirley and Jim Marsden, pre-walked the course just one day prior, a perfectly legal thing to do. While course markings (large orange arrows) guide your racing journey, the fast-of-the-fast mentally pre-plan their route, essentially memorizing each turn so as to lay down the quickest qualifying time possible. This would cost them, dearly.
Prior to Prologue, the course was set up with arrows for Day 1 Prologue AND Race Days 2 & 3. Levi and Jim missed that fact during their walk, and even though arrows were properly marked come Prologue morning, they would both end up making a wrong turn. This added distance & time to their run and also added penalty time that would be deliberated by the first ever use of Ultra4s Competition Review Board, or CRB. In the end, both Levi and Jim would be given 5 minute penalties on their already lengthened Prologue times, placing them in the back of the pack for Saturday's Day 2 race. As if being in the back wasn't tough enough, total times are cumulative, so out of the gate both would be in near to last place. Levi and Jim would have a lot of passing to do.
Day 2 followed on Saturday with roughly 46 Ultra4 racers flying past the start line, with just 2 minutes separating each. It would be a 15 mile course, and anyone's game at this early point. Those in front battled their hardest to stay in front, those in back battled their hardest to move in front. Rock quarries, speed sections, and the man made Odyssey obstacle course, complete with trenches deep enough to swallow 40" tires whole, provided a diverse landscape of Ultra4 racing goodness. By end of Day 2, both Levi and Jim would climb back to the top, alongside a number of other fast racers including Rob Butler, Sylvain Bessiere, Nicolas Montador, and Dave Cole's son Bailey Cole.
Then came the rain.
Day 3 would bring that water I talked about earlier, and it was by far the wettest Ultra4 race I've ever attended (yes, that includes Badlands). Neil would implement "Plan B", rather a slight course diversion so as to play nice with some obstacle now requiring rigs to be fully amphibious. The waterfall section at the bottom of the mountain would be cut, and the race would be shortened to 2 laps, but make no mistake; Ultra4 drivers loved every messy minute from Day 3. It was wet, fast, and challenging... it was great racing with smiles decorating the field.
The rain never fully stopped that final day, but the racing did eventually come to an end, roughly 16:00 Sunday British Summer Time. Even with the Prologue penalty, it would be the nonstop, never give up attitude of US's own Levi Shirley and spotter Terry Madden who would bring home another Ultra4 win. This the 2nd European win for young Levi, having just grabbed 1st at the last race, King so the Mountains, in Parma, Italy. Rounding out the top three would be Jim Marsden and Sylvain Bessiere, two drivers that are also becoming common Ultra4 household names these days. A huge congrats to all three, it was an amazing race from start to finish, and a giant honor to claim a place on that podium.
EDIT: As of 9am MST on 8/13, a scoring error has been caught and published by the Ultra4 European sanctioning body. This correction has moved Sylvain Bessiere to 4th place. Team WSR, with driver Nicolas Montador, is now the official 3rd place finisher. While errors of this nature are unfortunate, they sometimes happen in the world of racing. Both Nicolas and Sylvain should be proud, all top spots from my vantage point.
Which ends this years journey in Wales. As always, I had an absolute blast being part of the action and encourage anyone and everyone to make the journey out to any one (or all) of these amazing European Ultra4 competitions. Next up, the European season finale, The King of Portugal which, rumor has it, is shaping up to be the very next big thing. Bigger than King of the Hammers? We'll have to just wait and see on that, for now I need to figure out where to get some of that Welsh ale in Colorado, and a dragon to cook that gloriously hot pub food.
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