Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Victor Lucas

The year was 2006 and the downhill circus was rolling into Willingen, Germany, for round three of the World Cup. It’s safe to say that Willingen wasn’t really a favorite with the racers, it was short and fast, with massive jumps and it had more of a bike park ‘motorway’ feel to it. For racers who preferred their tracks to be raw and natural they’d rather have given this one a miss.

Willingen had held a World Cup the year before in 2005, so this time around racers knew what to expect and many of them came prepared with shorter travel bikes and lighter component builds, bikes that were more suitable to the short and punchy course. After missing the entire 2004 season through injury INTENSE racing legend Chris Kovarik was looking to regain some of his winning ways. After finishing eighth in Vigo and then twentieth in Fort William Kovarik was looking for something a little closer to the podium.

His weapon of choice was to be a special prototype bike that Jeff Steber (INTENSE Founder and CEO) had built for him, “Basically I used the main triangle of the 6.6, an Uzzi rear end for its larger tubes, 6.6 dropouts, M3’ish geometry, some extra gusseting and it had 8.5” (215mm) of travel.” Let’s not forget that this bike had 26” wheels and single crown forks. This bike would go on to be developed and become the Socom.

Chris Kovarik defines the attitude and spirit of INTENSE so it was great to catch up with him to grab a few words about Willingen and the ‘666’.

So let’s wind the clock back, what was life like for Chris Kovarik in 2006?

It was my second year back from a serious leg/ankle break after casing my moto. After missing the whole 2004 season recovering, 2005 felt like a warm up and it was the first year I had zero podiums. So at that point in time (2006) I was hungry to get some results.

You were now part of the newly formed MS-Racing INTENSE team?

I joined with the MS-Racing team from the factory INTENSE USA team to carry on racing World Cups. It made sense to be based over in Europe with a team to be close to all the race venues. It was MS's first year running a team so it was touch and go most time for me, team dynamics were all over the place and I never really felt comfortable the whole time I was in that team. I was grateful to race and have support but it was a real mental challenge.

This was the second time that the World Cup had visited Willingen, what can you remember about it?

I actually dreaded going to this race, the ski lift was a little wooden two seater and about 200 years old and slow as f–k, it felt like it was going to break at any second, ha ha. The first year there the track was fresh but soft, it was kinda flat with jumps you really had to pedal hard at. So carrying speed was a real issue for that first 30-40 seconds. The rest of the track was decent but there were not many places to make time up, as it was only a two minute long track. The second year was a little better as the ground at the top had packed in, but was still super pedally. You saw riders switching up bikes and changing tires in the hunt for speed and to help carrying momentum, and that’s when I thought the shorter travel and lighter 6.66 would help.

By all accounts the track was almost hardtail terrain at the top but then it suddenly went a bit crazy with a hip jump and then a testing and confusing rock strewn section?

Yes it was, so the 6.66 was a good compromise for the top section and the rock section in the middle. The rocks were quite confusing as there were around three different ways you could jump them. It was quite cool though as it made you stop and scratch your head. In the end I opted for the easier main lines.

What can you tell us about this bike? 

This was the first time I’d ever raced a WC on a short travel bike, so for this track it was set up a little stiffer in the suspension and had less travel than the M3, the wheelbase was shorter than the M3 I was used to. It had 6” single crown forks rather than triple crowns, and as you can see the head angle was quite steep. I think we even put lighter casing INTENSE tires on it specifically for this track. As goofy as it looked it worked well at the time.

Did the bike feel right on the track, were you pleased you used this rather than your M3?

I felt great through the top jumps and into the rock section but from that point to the finish line the bike was twitchy and nervous, it was definitely a handful of work, but it was a better choice over the M3.

The bike pretty much laid the foundations for the Socom, was that a bike you enjoyed?

I rode the Socom a little but I never felt at home on it for some reason.

Rogues' gallery (L-R) Rennie, Minnaar, Peat, Atherton and Kovarik.

In the final the times were very tight, you ended up in fifth, do you remember much about it?

I honestly can’t remember a thing about my race run, although it was a great feeling being back on the podium after the two years coming back from the leg break. Quite a few beers were had that night, which might explain the loss of my race run memory, ha!

Three weeks later you won in Mont Sainte-Anne, I guess you weren’t on this bike then?

I did win, back on the M3. It was one of the most memorable moments in my career… but I’ll save that story for another time!

1. Steve Peat, Santa Cruz Syndicate: 1:58.30
2. Greg Minnaar, G-Cross Honda: 1:59.47
3. Gee Atherton, Animal/Giant: 1:59.55
4. Nathan Rennie, Santa Cruz Syndicate: 1:59.99
5. Chris Kovarik, MS-Intense Factory Racing: 2:00.39