With the recent news that No Fuss Events would be running its Endurance Downhill event once again in 2017, we thought now would be a great time to re-visit our feature from the previous running of the event in 2012. If you’re thinking of entering the event, we soundly encourage it. And then have a read of how Chipps’ got on…
It can’t be that bad as he’s put his name down for next year already…
Chipps attempts to find out if a desperately average rider can survive six hours against the Fort William World Cup downhill course.
Words by Chipps, pictures by Sim.
I am not a downhill god. I am rarely seen with my wheels off the ground and I can’t even wheelie. The last time I entered a downhill race was last millennium and Rob Warner won it on a 5in-travel bike. And yet, somehow, I thought that that entering the No Fuss Fort William Six Hour Endurance Downhill was a good idea…
Not only do you get to race your bike down the very same World Cup downhill course that we see Peaty, Hart, the Athertons and Gwin race on (minus only a short wooded bit and the bonkers road gap), but you get to do it again, and again. As many times down the hill in six hours as you can, with a gondola ride back up for a bit of respite.
Time for another confession: although I’ve reported from the Fort William World Cup for many years, at no point have I ever ridden it. Not only that, but I’ve never even walked the whole thing. I’ve photographed riders at the top and the bottom. The rest of it, I’d only seen on video.
I was obviously woefully under-prepared, but I decided that if I was going to do it, I would do it as well as I could. I needed some big help, and I was going to pull every bike industry string in order to get it.
Starting at the bottom.
My first mission was to try to get a bike that was up to the job, that I could count on to forgive my many mistakes. Luckily Orange chose the 2012 Fort William World Cup to launch its new 322 downhill bike; 200mm of welded-in-Halifax single pivot cush. Marketing guru Pete Scullion, a multiple Endurance Downhill veteran himself said that they could put one by for me for the event before it went on to life as a demo bike. That’s assuming I’d keep it in one piece.
I’d need (and accept) as much protection as possible. Knees, elbows and back were covered by Sweet Protection pads, a full face too with some snazzy Dragon goggles. Although, in retrospect, the best bit of protection I bought was a midge headnet for the fierce Scottish midge.
I had a bike capable of getting me down the hill, I had some hope of remaining un-dented if I fell off, but I didn’t really have a clue how hard the course would be to actually ride.
Up until a month before the July race date, my training had consisted of doing some press-ups and watching some head-cam videos from riders on the course. I needed to get some extra talent somehow and luckily I knew someone to call.
Nigel Page has raced at Fort William many times and now manages the young riders of the Chain Reaction Cycles team doing the same. He also runs a skills-training business. I booked an afternoon with him to see if he could show an old dog some new tricks. Over a couple of hours, Nigel helped me get the measure of riding a downhill bike, seeing just what it could do and getting an idea of how to make it do my bidding. Details of that wet afternoon on a rocky Lancashire hillside were captured on film and may one day make the light of day; suffice to say that I came away with a few pointers and a belief that not only was the bike capable of making it down the mountain, but so was I.
How does it work then?
‘It’s a race down a mountain, but if everyone gets to catch up in the gondola queue, then how can that work?’ was a question I needed answering. It turns out that there’s an extended Le Mans start and a ride up a bit of the hill to spread out the riders. The clock starts when the first rider gets back to the gondola station. Seeing as the gondola ride time is the same for everyone, the only portion of the course that’s timed is from start hut to finish line. The winner is the one who does the greatest number of runs in the shortest time within the six hours (this year the winner was the first to 15 runs, regardless of time, which handily turned out to be about six hours.) If riders do the same number of laps, the quickest cumulative time wins.
There’s a ‘parc fermé’ for the riders, meaning that any spares you might need have to be in the pits before the start of the race. No outside help is allowed and while you’re allowed to swap out whole wheels, major swaps like frames or whole bikes are penalised heavily enough to deter riders bringing spare bikes.
As I found out, I was woefully equipped for the pit portion of the event, having just a Camelbak and some energy chews, but first, let’s get there…
Time to get worried.
Sim and I cadged a ride up to Fort William with our pal Tim Sadler. Tim had raced twice before and was also in the loose circle of Orange friends that meant he’d be riding a Patriot for the weekend. On the journey, I was keen to grill Tim for tips on the event as, apart from Matt and Benji’s go at the race in 2010, I’d learnt very little about it.
We got to Fort William in time for some dinner and a twilight walk to see the course of the Le Mans start. Tim walked us through the track and, as he did so, the sheer size of the start hill became evident. It’s all well hearing ‘…and then ride up to Tower Nine before joining the course.’ But what you don’t realise is that it means ‘nine gondola towers up the mountain’ and that is a long, long way on a downhill bike. As we trudged up in the rain with a beer we joked about where we’d style it up and ‘send it’. And that was just on the climb…
We then joined the course and started our walk down the bottom quarter of the track. Here was my first chance to see the big gullies, rocks and roots of the actual World Cup course. In retrospect, I spent a long time looking for smooth, cross-country lines through rocky sections that, come race time, I wouldn’t even be thinking about, as they were just gone in a blink. My brain still hadn’t got used to the speed it was going to be working at on the course; just as you might expect a classic Mini driver to get all his braking and turning points wrong when given a spin in a Ferrari on a race track.
We moved on down to ‘the motorway’ – the section where World Cup riders routinely clear the massive tabletops. My mission would be the opposite: if I made it through without launching myself into space, I’d be happy.
Finally we looked at the drop after the Tissot arch. The jump before it, you can ride around. The drop towards the arena, though, you approach blind and simply can’t avoid. Likewise the vicious-looking double drop-offs near the bottom.
Tim told me solemnly that for this steep pitch, I was to physically remove my fingers from the brake levers as I approached, as otherwise the sheer terror would inadvertently make me brake – and that’s not what you want to be doing at this point…
We finally retired to our little tents, wary of the many midges, and I listened to the rain hammering on the fabric until I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Riders ready! Er… not really.
Surprisingly, the morning dawned bright and sunny. We made our way to breakfast at the Nevis Range café and waited for the Orange truck. The race runs from 3pm to 9pm, but already riders were turning up, suiting up and getting ready for a practice run. I signed on and was presented with No.6. Apparently I was the sixth oldest racer there. Although there were plenty of young bucks around, I didn’t feel particularly out of place. In fact I felt very welcome; the atmosphere was more ‘mutual respect’ than ‘racing glares’ and you got the feeling that everyone was pitching themselves against the track, rather than each other.
The Orange van arrived and I finally got to sit on the bike I’d be riding. Pete told me, in no uncertain terms, that the bike had received a full NBC (nut and bolt check) and that I was not to take any tools to it. I could see how the temptation to tighten (and over-tighten) bolts here must be great. Pedals on, downhill gear on and we were off up the hill for a test ride.
In the gondola, Pete started giving me some line-choice tips about various sections of the course. Go left then right here, keep far right on this bit, go flat out over these rocks… the only trouble I had was that they all sounded (and looked) identical. I didn’t have a good picture of the course in my head, so getting tips on this bit and that didn’t really work.
Then, we reached the iconic eye-shaped start house. This was it; the Fort William downhill course. The Wembley Stadium of mountain biking – and they’ll let muppets like me on it… We let other riders go ahead until there was no choice but to roll out down that steep starting ramp. This was actually the only part of the Fort William course I’d already seen in person. We mugged for some photos on the easier sections up top and then carried on down the course, leaving Sim to walk back up to catch the gondola down.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the size, ferocity and sheer relentlessness of the course. Hit after hit – berm, drop, rocks, drop, more rocks… Tim pointed out some of the lines, but it was impossible to remember more than a couple as they still all looked the same.
We stopped to look at one particular tricky section. I walked back up and had a go, panic braked on the damp rock and slid out, nutting the rock and clicking something in my back – like when you twist and lift a heavy box and something goes ‘spang!’ – that was my warning not to brake on anything remotely slippy or off-camber. So, about half the mountain then. Luckily my armour seemed to be taking care of me.
I followed Tim down, cruising along, trying to remember the slightly less rocky lines and letting the bike soak up everything I could get it to. I was desperately aware that I wasn’t riding the course at even my meagre race speed, so it would be another learning process once the race began. There wouldn’t be time for another run, so I’d just have to make it up as I went along.
Compared to the top half of the course, the lower section that had scared me the night before was a relative doddle. It’s surprising how quickly you can get used to bigger terrain when there’s even bigger terrain available to scare you. However, the final drop into the arena never got less than terrifying.
Let’s get it done.
There wasn’t much time remaining to get too worried; it was mostly taken up by the rider briefing and putting my pitifully inadequate gear into the pits while hoping I didn’t have a mechanical. Vaughan from Orange took pity on me and lent me a couple of tubes and access to his toolbox if I needed. I was hoping I wouldn’t.
All too soon I was putting my bike in the hedge and lining up with the rest of the runners for the Le Mans start. The Orange contingent started at the back; after all, it was a six hour race, right?
We started – 120 or so armoured-up downhill warriors. Riders up front sprinted for position to get to the bikes. We walked, then I broke into an involuntary jog to the bikes. Riders had used all sorts of makeshift methods to turn their downhill rigs into climbers: zip ties round the shocks and blocks of wood jammed between swingarms and frames were common ‘upgrades’ for the climb.
I’d discovered that my box-fresh 322 had a 400mm seatpost in it, so I jacked the post up to pedaling height and started spinning up the gravel. Despite a straight-through racing cassette, the bike made ground on many of the riders and I started working my way through the field. The sun had chosen now to come out, leaving riders sweating cobs as they made the 20-minute climb up the mountain.
Finally getting to the course, I put my goggles on and headed down the track. At this point I was steeled for the shouts of faster riders as I got in their way, but to my surprise I got down without anyone actually passing me. Perhaps there was hope for me yet.
There was a line to get onto the gondolas and riders whipped off helmets and goggles as we all sweated buckets in the heat. Bikes went on the back of the bubbles, three at a time, with the riders inside, so the queue moved reasonably rapidly and I was soon on the way up the mountain.
The gondola conversation was lighthearted, with most riders grinning with exuberance. After all, it’s not every day you get let loose on a world-class downhill track, with marshals with whistles and a finish line and pits and everything.
Even the ramp out of the start gate is steep and intimidating at Fort William, but there were riders coming up the hill behind me all the time and my biggest concern was not getting in anyone’s way. Time to drop in.
I was trying to remember all of my tips from Nigel Page; keeping ‘tall’ on the bike, ready to absorb bumps and returning quickly to that ready position, heels down, strong stance and forcing the bike to go where I wanted it to, rather than where it did. Most of this was forgotten on the first corner as I tried to process the track coming to me at speed.
Any thought of remembered lines was forgotten as I just tried riding what I could see on-sight. The claustrophobic feeling of breathing hard in a full face helmet, behind goggles, helped add to the alien feeling of it all. At every obstacle (so about every 50 yards) I would slow, look behind me to make sure there wasn’t a rider there, look at the rocks and pick a line and then launch myself down it. Not with much style, but with as much conviction as I dared. The bike (and momentum) usually kept me upright. I was desperately aware that there’s a minimum speed that the course ‘works’ at, and I was below it, falling into all the holes and not skipping over the tops like I was supposed to.
But I made it to the bottom without incident. I sucked up, or avoided, as many of the jumps as I could and I rode at a conservative 80% of my potential top speed. After all, I was in this for the long-haul. I also reckon that 80% is probably about as fast as I ever go anyway!
Then it was back to the gondola hall and back up in the lift, sharing grins and near-miss stories with other riders and peering out of the windows at the riders on course. The quick riders were so much smoother to watch, but I was heartened to see a fair number of me-paced riders picking their way down the slope.
And again. And again.
The afternoon blurred into run after run. I lost count after about seven of them. I don’t think my lines improved greatly with each run; there’s no time to scope out that far-right line when you’re halfway down the (wrong) far left one. There was a great deal of slithering and a couple of times when I just skittered to a dead halt, or off into the brush, but I mostly stayed upright. Here are a few of my scattered memories:
Amazed that I’m still in one piece. I’m parched, so I stop for water. I grab my Camelbak from the pits so that I can drink on the gondola. Maybe the pros don’t ride with them, but it makes it much easier to drink on the way up between laps. Riders are still doing the ‘Where are you from, what are you on?’ conversation in the gondola.
The clouds come in, dulling and smothering the top of the mountain. It brings a bit of rain, but it makes most of the course tacky rather than slithery and the big rock slabs remain grippy. I take the wrong far left line again. My helmet lining is sopping and goggles need a wipe.
Three of us are joined in the gondola by two giggling lasses on a day trip from Glasgow. They can’t quite believe what we’re doing. Neither can I to be honest. They promise to wave. They’re still finishing their drinks when I ride past the café a run later. They wave.
On my run down I pass Tim, he came off one of the wooden ‘easier’ lines up top and has wrenched his wrist, hand and knee. Game over for him.
I start bumping into many of the same faces in the gondola now.
I’ve been quite surprised that my pace isn’t too different from riders who look far more competent than me. Now, though, we’re all starting to get lapped by the leaders and I start being soundly overtaken by the fast people. They give a good shout out though, and only pass where there’s room.
I’m looking at lines out of the gondola – so that’s where the good line is on that right hander. I vow to remember. Bits of the track are coming into focus now, but it’s still all a bit vague. I find I can remember about one new section per run.
There’s an old boy in the lift, he’s in his 60s and was bought a surprise entry by his son, who’s also racing. At the other end, there’s a youngster in the junior race. He’s eating his home made sandwiches and drinking pop. And he’s faster than me.
Probably double figures – I’ve stopped counting.
Riders are trying for one or two more laps. Stories abound of loose or broken spokes and wheels about to give out. Do you stop for five minutes and put in a spare? Or do you keep on keeping on?
I’m feeling tired, but OK. My triceps and shoulders are feeling it a bit, as well as my whole blanket of fatigue. The bike’s been faultless so far. The biggest problem? My thumb keeps bumping the shifter trigger when I go over drop-offs. As bike issues go, things could be much worse.
It’s starting to get dark in the woods and I’m starting to tire. In some places this actually improves my riding because I don’t have the energy to haul on the brakes or suck up the jumps as much, so I start flying a little more. I still treat the big jumps on the motorway with the utmost respect – especially after seeing a rider in front of me do an unintentional, superman no-footer.
I go through the finish and No Fuss Frazer lets me know that I’ve got time for another run, so I spin through the pits and off to the gondola without stopping. It seems very quiet on course now. I just need to get down in one piece. I make a point of thanking all the marshals, who’ve been up here, working, cheering and being midged for six hours. Do I go for all the jumps on my final run? Do I style it into the arena? Do I hell! 80% baby, 80%…
And it’s done.
It was all hugs and smiles at the bottom. Everyone seemed relieved that it was over and we gathered in the café for food, a well-earned beer and the prize giving. Thousand-yard stares were on many riders, but there was a great, shared euphoria in the air and big smiles all round. It reminded me of the Exposure 12 and 24hr Solo Championships; everyone there to test themselves against the course, not to vanquish enemies. There were huge cheers for every category, and even my old gondola pal won a prize in the Super Vet class. Me? I did 12 full runs and I finished higher than halfway up the field. But that’s not the point, is it?
All that remained was to crash out for the night and take the long journey back home. Two days later and my legs were so stiff I had to walk downstairs backwards… Will I be back? Absolutely! I might even get my wheels off the ground next time.
Premier Subscribers can watch Nigel Page moulding Chipps into a downhiller on singletrackworld.com/2012/08/learning-with-nigel/