Rather strangely, the story of Round 2 of the National Downhill Series begins roughly one week earlier, some 300 miles from Fort William on an uplift in Llangollen, Wales.
“I don’t think I’ve ever missed a race through injury” Binnsy says with a touch of smugness. “Hmmm” I think.
After last year’s debacle with Binnsy’s van breaking down (read all about that here), we’re taking extra precautions to make sure we don’t miss out on Friday practice this time around. We’re driving all the way to Fort William on Thursday evening and we’re taking two vans rather than one. Belt and braces, yeah?
“At least you won’t have to hang around for podiums if you’re in your own van” Mrs Making Up The Numbers says as I leave. The sad fact is that it isn’t even said with a hint of sarcasm anymore. She’s right though (she’s always right, apparently); the Vets field is stacked once again and it’s easier to look for the odd person I might beat rather than starting at the top and working my way down some kind of provisional order.
Unfortunately, Friday’s a complete wash out. There’s a 2-hour spell of high winds at just the wrong time which means the gondola doesn’t run at all and the only thing we can do to salvage it is a 3-hour track walk (it’s a big hill). On the way up I didn’t quite manage to jump some rocks and fell in the stream by the Hazard Hoofer. This doesn’t bode well for the weekend.
Before we’ve even set foot on the track though, word reaches us that Jason Holland has been carried out “through the restaurant” on a body board . After an overnight stay in Belford Hospital, sharing a room with an 85-year-old bloke with piles and flatulence Jason arrives on Friday afternoon moving like an Action Man; the whole top half of his body can only turn as one unit.
“Wendy’s crying on the phone” he says “she wants me to come home” but Jason is hanging around to see if he can ride on Saturday or Sunday. Despite words of encouragement we all know he won’t. You can tell from the look in his eyes, he’s been bitten by The Bill.
We’re back onsite early on Saturday (n.b. Binnsy had no trouble arriving early on Saturday morning) with the intention of being on the first gondola of the day. In a somewhat uncharacteristically unselfish act, Binnsy volunteers to help the Steve Peat Syndicate guys put their gazebo up, and in doing so puts his back out. I mean, you could definitely write the script. He’s already got his kit on though so he comes up in the gondola to try and ride but he can’t even sit down properly so he’s out. I don’t think he thought things could go any worse than last year but his weekend’s done – a 700-mile round trip without a single run to his name.
Jason and Binnsy aren’t the only ones missing though. There are 17 Vets listed on the British Cycling website but Kris Lord and James Davies aren’t here and Dave Ingelby’s blown both his shock and his ankle before we even get started. Thankfully, I’ve got Graeme “Cocky” Cochrane and Steve Felstead to keep me company and I need all the help I can get. I’ve never done well here. I’ve never even had a run I’ve been proud of. Truth be told, it scares me. The occasional times I‘ve thrown caution to the wind I’ve really hurt myself.
Although the top section is exactly the same as previous years, the third quarter of the track has changed completely since we were here for the BDS last year. There’s a huge new section after the Deer Gate that’s really fast and flowy. Then there’s a completely new bit in the woods, replacing the infamous bog section that blighted riders at last year’s World Cup. It’s tight and twisty and super slow, almost a bit “trialsy” I suppose. On the track walk I thought it looked quite straightforward but first run in and I’m over the bars, smashing the visor on a new helmet. A combination of tinted lens and according to Jason “age-related macular degeneration”. I’m not alone though. Binnsy spends a big chunk of time watching riders coming through this section and there are a lot of crashes. “It’s the best place to watch” he quips.
I never really liked the run in to the Hazard Hoofer but they’ve made it much smoother this year. “Do all your braking before the right hander and then just slam your front wheel as hard as you can into the rocks on the left hander, then get a couple of pedals in” Chris Whitfield tells me; so I do and things go much better. So much better in fact that I decided to have a go at the wall ride. Twice. On my first attempt I just tickled it really, but then I had a proper go. It was a bit like being a virgin at an orgy; delighted to be there but no idea what to do or how to get off.
I somehow survived though which gave me the confidence to have a crack at The Motorway, I just needed someone to give me a tow in… A few moments after pausing Alastair Maclennan arrives and duly obliges. Years ago, someone told me that if you want to clear the jumps on The Motorway you have to ‘no brake it’ from the top of the bridge. What they didn’t say was that Alastair would pedal all the way down said bridge. I hang with him round the berm. No brakes! Off the hip, a couple of pedal strokes and then we send the step down. The only thing I remember is being in the air and looking down and seeing the ruts where everyone had been landing, but we were still flying. On to the first tabletop which I nearly clear, but that’s enough for one day. I’m buzzing. If I can do the first tabletop I’ll be fine getting through the rest of it. Cocky and Steve are also buzzing after really cracking on; Mark Weightman is hitting everything; in fact, everyone seems to be buzzing. The sun’s out, there’s no wind and we’re riding the best track in the UK. What’s not to like?
Well, the bike’s taken a bit of a hammering. There’s a banging sound coming from the shock area (which after a bit of investigation just turns out to be the spring coming loose); the rear mech has had a bang but the nice people at Shimano put me a new one on and all the spokes have come loose on the rear wheel. As well as taking photos Binnsy is begrudgingly mechanic-ing for me now, tightening spokes and truing the wheel. To add insult to injury, the bunkhouse he’s booked for us only has one bedroom which has a double bed. He knew this when he booked it but he thought there was a lounge as well. Anyway, there isn’t and so he’s dragged his mud and blood stained mattress and sheet in from the van and he’s sleeping on the kitchen floor. “It’s like a scene from Trainspotting” he says and he’s right, it does looks a lot like a smack den. I think about offering him the double bed, but at the end of the day I’m the only one racing. “Would Sam Hill let his mechanic have the bed whilst he slept on the kitchen floor? I think not.”
“We don’t need to leave at 7”. It’s an early start for race day and Binnsy’s quibbling about what time we have to leave. I say 7, he says 7:15. “I bet Sam Hill’s mechanic doesn’t argue with him about what time they get to the race”. This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a race weekend.
After Saturday’s triumphant end, Sunday starts pretty badly. My arms are so sore I can barely hold on and by the time we go up for the second run I’ve had four Ibuprofen, two Paracetamol and rubbed half a tube of Ralgex on them. Then, as I change gear after sprinting out of the start gate the new mech goes clunk and it’s banging on the frame all the way down. It’s quickly fixed though and we’re straight back up for seeding.
I don’t know who was in charge of the seeding but I’m off fifth from last. Behind me I have Chris Whitfield (ex-Elite), Mark Weightman (ex-Elite) and Marky Neal (Masters BDS Champion 2017). I’m potentially 90 seconds slower than them all so they might all catch me. We appeal to the Commissaire but it’s a UCI race and there’s no messing around “You’ll just have to pull over”. Chris catches me just after the Deer Gate, and as we hit the new woods section I’m wondering where Mark is. By the time I’ve done the Hoofer and the wall ride I’m thinking he must’ve crashed. At no point does it actually enter my mind that I might be doing pretty well. It’s only as we’re coming off the bridge on to The Motorway that I hear a shout. Over the hip, over the step down and then I let him past but in doing so I’ve lost all my speed. I cross the line with a 6:43 though so I’m chuffed. It’s 20 seconds faster than I’ve ever previously completed a run here, 30 seconds quicker than last year.
I don’t appear to have held Mark and Chris up too badly either which is a bonus. Things don’t go quite so well for Stu Hughes though who crashed on an innocuous part of the top section, breaking his wrist. Hope you’re fixed up soon Stu.
As expected, both the Men’s and Women’s Elite fields are stacked with talent getting a quick refresher on the track ahead of the World Cup which is just 3 weeks away. Trek, Radon, Scott, One Vision, Madison Saracen, Commencal/Vallnord, FMD and UNNO have got their full teams here and then there’s a host of others as well.
Watching from the sidelines on Saturday, Binnsy tips Danny Hart for the win. “He’s just so smooth everywhere”. I was next to Danny in the gondola queue three times on Saturday. At one point I overheard him say to his team manager Will Longden “You know that bit on the rock section where it splits and there’s 2 lines. That next bit’s really fast now; I have to brake there.” I’m not sure what’s more mesmerising, the fact that we’re probably nearly a third of the way down the track at this point and it’s some kind of inconvenience that he has to brake, or the fact that he can remember every single place where he brakes.
Danny doesn’t win seeding though. A crash means Amaury Pierron takes it. Whilst waiting for that tow into The Motorway on Saturday afternoon I’d watched Amaury showboating, wheelie-ing all the way down the bridge on to The Motorway and thought “it’s all well and good, but I bet you can’t organise a sales conference with the precision that I can”. We all know what’s important right?
Danny doesn’t crash in his race run though taking the win by 5 seconds from Greg Williamson with Faustin Figaret in third. That’s quite a marker given the quality of the field. However, I believe no one has ever won the National and then gone on to take the World Cup, but you have to think Danny will be there or thereabouts in three week’s time. Big shout out to Joe Breeden, who after recovering from a horrific knee injury in the off season came fourth in his first ever Elite race.
In the Elite Women Rachel Atherton took the win from Tahnée Seagrave with a rejuvenated Katy Curd in third. It was a great weekend for Trek Factory Racing with Kade Edwards also taking the win in Junior Men by 0.1 from Henry Kerr with Thibaut Daprela under a second back and Luke Williamson taking the win in Youth. Big shouts out to Tom Walker who won Open Men by over 20 seconds; Mikayla Parton who won Open Women by over 25 seconds; Jono Jones who took the win in Expert with a time that would’ve been Top 20 in Elite and Jordan Williams who won Juvenile by 7 seconds – he’s either 13 or 14 and his time, a 5:13, would’ve put him just off the podium in Expert. Staggering.
As we’re going up for our race runs we see red flags and a rider down after the hip. It looks bad and there’s a course hold for nearly an hour. By the time we’re racing it’s over 4 hours since we’ve last done a run and I’ve lost any semblance of rhythm. In my seeding run I was only 6 seconds behind Cocky so we’re racing but I think it’s harder than seeding. The wind’s got up and I feel tired. I keep getting glimpses of Donald Miller, the rider in front of me though so I’m not doing too badly but then I lost concentration, braking in the berm before The Motorway. I pedalled as hard as I could but there was a bloody head wind and I knew the second I left the step down that I wasn’t going to make it. Big crash. Big cheers when I got up. Another visor destroyed.
Luckily I’d gone off the side of the track because Cocky’s right behind me and he soars past as I untangle my bike from the tape. He’s done a 6:26, 12 seconds quicker than his seeding run which is good enough for 9th. Marky Neal absolutely smokes everyone in the Vets though with a 5:20, a time that was fractionally faster than Mike Taylor’s winning time in Masters. Chris Whitfield takes 2nd after rolling up to the start gate with a front flat and hurriedly having to fix it. Mark Weightman’s in 3rd.
In the Grand Vets Allister Maclennan wins. He just always seems to have the edge over Pete Little in the big races but those two are pretty far clear of Paul Le Maitre in third.
I’m going to be buggered next season when Cocky and Jason move up to Grand Vets. They joke that if you look at the spread function on Roots and Rain you’ll need a widescreen to see me with the rest of the Vets and they’re probably right.
I’m not too bothered though. I’ve finally had a run I’m proud of. My aim before the weekend was to try and go sub 6:30 and had I not had to pull over to let Mark through it would’ve been there or thereabouts.
Big shout out to everyone at the SDA for organising such a fantastic event. Can’t wait to get back up there for the National Champs in July. One weekend racing Fort William per year is usually enough for my body but I enjoyed it so much that I might just go and race the SDA Scottish Champs in early September as well (You won’t – Mrs Making Up The Numbers ed).
We’ll be back in a few weeks as the season really hots up. Hopefully Binnsy’s back is fixed by then. In the meantime, give us a follow, @makingupthenumbersracing on Instagram for additional content!