It’s 1pm on Friday afternoon and we’re sat in The Clachaig some 20 miles from Fort William. We should’ve been on the gondola at 10am but instead we’re having a pint. This isn’t how things were supposed to go…
This week didn’t start well; it’s been chaotic. In short: the old man’s been in hospital, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend have had a baby, there’s a huge work project to deliver next week and by Wednesday it had become apparent that Nicolai weren’t going to get the frame that I bent at round one back to me in time for this weekend. The only option I’m left with is to try and convert the trail bike into some kind of DH weapon that can take the kind of beating Fort William has to offer.
Apparently the last thing a heavily pregnant #MrsMakingUpTheNumbers wants to hear on a Wednesday night is me screaming “Oh FFS” whilst throwing spanners on the ground in frustration, so I drop the trail bike and all the parts from the DH bike off with Alex at Ticky Bikes and ask him to do his best; but none of this has any bearing on why we’re sat in The Clachaig.
Revolution Bike Park Racing team mate Binnsy and I meet after work on Thursday and travel up together. We’re delighted to find that the carvery opposite the Dumbarton Travelodge is still doing 2 pints and 2 meals for 15 quid. “You’d struggle to get the drinks alone for that price in The Bubbleroom” Binnsy assures me. We continue our journey early Friday morning, but an hour south of Fort William there’s a small bang and it appears that the clutch has gone on the van. 2 hours later we’re on the back of a trailer heading in the opposite direction to where we want to go.
We arrive at a garage, at a crossroads, in the middle of nowhere. There’s no phone signal and we’re 4 miles from a place called Killin. If they ever decide to remake the film Deliverance, this is the place to film it. As we make our way around the back there’s a scrap yard and I joke that “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s bodies in the boots of those cars”. The foreman, a friendly Scottish gentleman called Billy suggests, in the thickest Scottish accent, that it might cost not far short of “a thousand pounds” to fix it, but as part of the deal he’ll let us have a hire car for free.
Anxious to carry on, Binnsy signs some forms and we get the keys to their only available vehicle; a 2006 Peugeot 307. Within 500 yards of leaving the garage the ABS warning light comes on and it pulls harder to the left than Jeremy Corbyn with a full mandate, but Max and Paddy Ride Again. By this point though, with the track closing at 3pm there’s no chance of us riding today, so that’s why we’re in The Clachaig.
The Fort William BDS is the UK’s biggest DH race. It’s a UCI ranked event and with the World Cup taking place here in just three weeks there’s a stacked Elite field getting practice in ahead of the big show. Danny Hart and Laurie Greenland are here, as are Loic Bruni and Finn Iles, the Athertons, Remi Thirion, Marcelo Gutierrez, the list goes on. It’s basically a mini World Cup.
A track walk on Friday night reveals that they’ve done quite a bit of repair work over the winter and it’s probably running the smoothest we’ve ever seen it. The jumps on the motorway are just as big as we remember and they’ve built the infamous Tissot jump up to roughly double the height it was before.
Saturday goes by in a bit of a blur really. We manage 5 runs but in between every one I’m making changes to the bike. The rear shock is bottoming out in places where it shouldn’t; the 30mm stem I want to run makes everything too cramped and the 30 tooth chain ring on the front that I assured Alex would be fine, isn’t fine at all; the gearing’s far too low – as I discover when I go to put a few cranks in to get me over the double after the fire road, my legs just spin but my speed doesn’t increase at all. By the end of the day though the bike’s feeling OK. I’m not though. You just forget how much it hurts.
I’m delighted to see that I’ve got a new PR on Strava. Unfortunately, it’s for the gondola ascent.
The track is so rocky and so long that by the time you reach the deer gate at roughly half way your legs, arms and hands are all screaming for a rest. The next section down to the woods is the roughest of them all and instead of looking for lines I’m looking for places to sit down, no matter how briefly. Mark Weightman has been racing DH since the year dot and he still doesn’t think there’s a track anywhere in the world that compares to it for the sheer impact it has on your body.
We don’t do a full run on Saturday but Jason Holland clocks a 6:35 so he’s pleased as punch. I’ve got one of those fancy Garmin watches and when I check the stats at the end of Saturday I’m delighted to see that I’ve got a new PR on Strava. Unfortunately, it’s for the gondola ascent. Honestly, who puts in a segment for that?
In the pits all the talk is of 29ers.
In the pits all the talk is of 29ers. If you have a look around the Mondraker, Trek and Commencal tents you’ll see that there are three of them on display. Rumours are circulating that in back-to-back tests a certain Mr Hart is 10 seconds quicker down the track on his than he is on his 650b bike. In a world where every tenth of a second matters that’s huge and if companies haven’t developed them already, they’re working on them now.
Despite the obvious advantage at a pro level, the reality for us is that there are other things that can have a far greater impact – fitness, practice and growing a pair being the main ones. Bill Young demonstrates this by taking 7th in the Vets on a 26” V10. Binnsy does quip “proportionally you’d look right on a 29er” though, so I should probably get one. I’ll let you know how that conversation with #MrsMakingUpTheNumbers goes…
Jack Reading and his One Vision Team haven’t got a 29er yet, but they’re trying something even more radical. They’ve strapped lead to their frames and Jack’s racing a 46lb bike. In the right places extra weight can be a good thing, helping to get rid of some of the chatter. It seems to be working as Jack has his best ever performance at Fort William ending up 9th with a 4:39.
There are 24 Vets registered but over the course of the weekend they’ve been dropping like flies. Phil Gray has left before we even had the chance to say hello; Horse has sprained his wrist, Graeme Cochrane has smashed his leg and his neck and in the Grand Vets Greg Kerr’s separated his shoulder and broken his thumb. By the time we get to seeding there are only 17 men standing. I’m off in the middle somewhere and I seed 11th with a 7:03. Halfway down I remember thinking “it’s only seeding, don’t push it” but moments later I’m completely offline in the woods and paddling back on to the track. I’m happy enough with the position but not the time. Jason Holland crashes in the woods. A repeat in his race run and I genuinely think that might be it; he’ll be trading in the V10 for a set of golf clubs. In the Grand Vets 30 second gaps between riders just aren’t enough and they’re all catching each other on the motorway. Binnsy does a 6:20 and seeds third.
For some reason I just never really seemed to get into my race run. I didn’t go for it, I didn’t push, I just rode down the hill at no great pace and ended up 12th, 5 seconds slower than seeding. I remember feeling tired but there weren’t any incidents of note and by the time I reached the motorway all I could think was “don’t wreck yourself this close to the end”. Fort William gets in my head like that. The track is relentless and it psyches me out more often than not. One day I think I’ll be able to put a good one together but only when I can really give it my all; you need full commitment otherwise, what’s the point?
Russ Harland pushes Mark Weightman into second but Jason’s done it! He’s managed to complete a race run without crashing and not only that he’s recorded a 6:29. I’m super pleased for him. Binnsy gives it a good go but he just can’t make the jumps on the motorway and he ends up third behind Alastair Maclennan and Pete Little.
In the Elite Men, the favourites Hart and Bruni are both coming down early after disastrous seeding runs; Hart had a puncture, Bruni a crash that required a few stitches prior to his race run. Neither the stitches nor the 650b wheels seem to slow him down too much though as he posts a 4:33. Danny is unstoppable at the minute though and despite over shooting the landing on the Tissot jump by some 15ft he smashes it with a 4:31.
There’s really only one man who can possibly catch him and that man is Gee Atherton who won seeding with a 4:39. But Gee DNF’s, crashing out on the top section and dislocating his hip. Hopefully he’ll be fixed in time for the World Cup.
In the Elite Women, Manon took the win from Tahnee with Rachel Atherton deciding not to seed or race. Performance of the weekend must go to young French pinner Thibault Daprela though who won the Youth category by 10 seconds ahead of a strong field. Pushing him close for that accolade though is Finn Iles in Juniors who managed to put 7 seconds into Joe Breeden with Kaos Seagrave in third. Atherton Academy’s Kade Edwards seeded 2nd but crashed out in his race run. Our team mate Jack Mills was red flagged on his race run and ended up 21st after a re-run.
As it turns out it wasn’t the clutch that had gone on the van, it was something to do with the drive shaft and we meet Billy to exchange vehicles on Sunday evening. The repair was a lot less than the predicted “a thousand pounds” so Binnsy’s delighted. Despite the joking earlier on, if you ever break down in Scotland we can highly recommend Billy and the guys at the Lix Toll garage, absolutely fantastic customer service getting us fixed up over the weekend.
“It’s been an adventure” Binnsy says as we go our separate ways in the early hours of Monday morning. It’s been a weekend that I’d happily forget, but one that I probably never will.