National Downhill Series Round 2 & SDA Round 3 – Fort William. George Thompson brings us his latest downhill race report from the shadows of the podium.
“Let me message Jules and see which one she wants to go to?”
“No, no, no, no, NO! Don’t do that!”
It’s Binnsy’s 30th Wedding Anniversary this summer and Jules wants to go back to Ibiza. They first visited a few years ago and given my previous career I managed to wangle them guest list for Cream at Amnesia. I’d like to say I sorted it because I wanted them to have a really good time, I knew Jules would; but I also liked the thought of 52 year old Binnsy still in a club at 5am, desperately trying to think of the best way to tell Jules that he doesn’t want to dance on a podium, he just wants to go home now.
It’s Friday morning and we’re sat in the Morrisons cafe in Fort William. It hasn’t changed much since our friend Mike Harding infamously asked if they had a ‘carb free’ breakfast option? “CARB FREE?” came the response from the waitress; it obviously wasn’t something she’d ever heard of before and probably still hasn’t to this day.
Binnsy’s already annoyed because the licensing laws are different up here and he can’t buy red wine until 10am. “Well I’m going to have to come back tonight now” he moans. He definitely doesn’t want the added stress of a trip to the Balearics to worry about.
We’re in sunny Scotland (yes, you read that right) for what is both Round 2 of the National DH Series and Round 3 of the SDA Series. It’s the UK’s biggest Downhill race outside of the World Cup and like us, the majority of riders have arrived early. The track’s like nothing else we have here in the UK; it’s so brutal that turning up on Saturday and trying to get a load of laps in will only leave you in one place on race day, and it’s not a good one.
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World Cup Practice time
With the World Cup just a few weeks away most of the UK’s big guns are here to practice; the Athertons, Hart, Greenland, Seagrave, Brayton, Williamson et al. Over 350 riders in fact. There’s usually a strong contingent of international riders too, but this year there’s only the odd ones scattered amongst the red, white and blue.
If it wasn’t such a big deal I wouldn’t be here. I’ve had a stomach bug since Tuesday; which, given I was in London at the time means it’s been a carefully plotted 500-mile tour of the UK’s finest Service Station toilets. What I really, really fancy is 3 nights sleeping in the van over a hundred yards from the nearest piece of porcelain.
There’s also a big work project to deliver next week; so, whilst everyone else rides, I spend Friday morning hammering the Wi-Fi in the café. I manage to get a few runs in after lunch though; three in fact before I clip a pedal on some rocks not 20 yards from the start gate. Stupidly, I’d decided to see if I could start in seventh gear; the basic premise being that if I could I wouldn’t have to change gear all the way down and that would be one less thing to think about. It sounds quite innocuous, a clipped pedal; but I was really cranking it and it’s a big smash. The worst crashes are generally the ones when you’re not expecting it and I’ve destroyed another visor, possibly a helmet, a brake lever, a set of grips and the whole front end of the bike is twisted, so it’s the ‘journey of shame’ back down in the gondola and that’s Friday done and dusted. It’s not been the best day I’ve ever had on the bike, but I console myself with the fact that at least I didn’t shit myself when I crashed.
Unless you’re pretty new to the sport everyone will have seen at least one bit of the Fort William track. A stalwart of the World Cup circuit, it hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years at least. It isn’t hard to ride; you can get down it all on a trail bike without much of an issue. It’s trying to do the whole 2.8km in one go, as fast as you can.
The top section, a series of flat turns and boardwalk lasts for just over a minute. You come off the boardwalk straight into a rock garden that runs pretty much all the way down to the Deer Gate that roughly marks halfway. By this point the ‘arm pump’ is starting to set in. The ‘relief’ is a fast, open section before the woods. “Woods” might actually be a bit grand for what is effectively a short stretch of trees and even then the first woods section was a bit too boggy to ride so they filled it full of rocks. It isn’t until we actually move a bit further down the track that we encounter our first bit of dirt and the SDA have cut in a great loamy line which drops all the way down to the fire road. Then there’s just the jumps… the World Cup Hip, the Hazard Hoofer and the Motorway to contend with.
What makes the track especially hard for me is that all the challenges come at the bottom. The Hip and the Hoofer are both awkward and the jumps on the Motorway are huge. By the time we reach the lower section I’m physically exhausted. When you see those videos of Gwin, Brayton and Gee in the gym, they’re not preparing for a 2-minute run down Ae Forest, they’re preparing for this and Mont St Anne and Val Di Sole and Vallnord; the really physical tracks.
My preparations for Fort William generally follow a similar pattern. Bit of training in February. Loads of work in March and April. Massive panic 3 weeks before the race which leads to training every day for a fortnight and then “tapering” during the week of the race. It’s never been successful before, hence I’ve taken exactly the same approach again. FFS.
By Saturday morning we’ve realised that although we’re all camped together as a team, Neil is having all his meals with the faster riders to the other side of his van. I don’t think he’s impressed that we’ve discussed things other than line choice and bike set up.
Saturday is a much better day, but after the crash on Friday it takes three runs to get my confidence to a point where I’m keen to have a crack at the motorway jumps. They’re big, two of the tabletops must be pushing 30 feet. I make the first jump, a hip; the second, a step down, but then get progressively shorter on each of the following jumps and by the fourth one I’m only just getting my front wheel on to the start of the landing. It doesn’t matter though; it’s full commitment, I can’t actually do anymore or go any faster. I still haven’t done the Hazard Hoofer though or the World Cup Hip.
I’m running a ShockWiz on the forks and checking it after every run. I started on Friday at 85psi but by the end of the Saturday I’m at 105 and I’ve added four clicks to both the low and high speed compression damping. It wants more! More air and more compression. It seems to be working as I can feel the bike isn’t dropping into the holes as much as it was before, but the payoff is that there’s more vibration coming through the bars from the smaller bumps so I’m not going any higher as I’m getting concerned that I might not be able to hold on.
Four runs is enough and I stop to take some photos. There’s a series of red flags though; the longest of which is for Matt Walker with rumours circulating that he’s out cold and he’s done some ribs. After an amazing first ever World Cup podium at Maribor confidence was obviously high and he was absolutely flying when we saw him riding on Friday. “That’s what this sport does to you” Matt Simmonds tells me during another red flag.
“I’ve just done a run without goggles. I’d like to say it was an eye opener, but it was actually the opposite” Marky Neal appears to be riding on his own which is probably why he’s forgotten to put his goggles on. ‘Geordie Shore’ have picked up on honorary third member this weekend in the form of BMX legend Mike “Jersey T” Taylor. “Where’s Pete and Mike?” I ask “I’ve binned them off, they’re just being negative” comes the response. It’s easy to get sucked into the negativity though. Binnsy and I went through the start list and worked out that despite there only being 20 riders in the Vets category, seventeenth is the best I can do and he’s battling for fifth in Grand Vets. Knowing I’m not well and not wanting to infect the entire population I’ve been careful only to shake the other Vets’ hands though.
Sunday is fun day
Sunday is a bit of a strange day. We’re on track before 9am and what a wakeup call that is. We manage 2 practice runs and on the second I follow Binnsy over the Hoofer. We’re not doing the World Cup Hip because the time difference between insiding the 2 turns before it and then rolling it and getting up high on both turns and hitting it isn’t that great. At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves. “Did you compress for the Hoofer?” Mike Taylor asks. “Pedaled at it, compressed, popped with everything I had, even pulled up with my cleats. Might’ve been a bit much, I landed in the berm”.
As we prep for seeding most people are doing all they can to make sure their bikes are perfect, to the point that Neil’s mate Weamsy is considering swapping his brake levers for the ones on his trail bike which have bearings in. I’m looking at the back tyre and asking “do you think I can get down with this on? I don’t want to ruin a new one.”
Apathy bites though. “Well, that’s my race over” Binnsy says, holding a snapped pivot bolt. It’s come loose over the course of the weekend and the linkage has sheared the top off.
“Surely you’d feel something like that coming loose?” Weamsy asks
“You might” I respond, “all we feel is pain”.
A quick rush around the pits heralds a tap and Binnsy’s back racing with half a bolt holding the bike together. I’m sure it will be fine. I mean he did once tell me I’d be OK to carry on riding a frame with a huge crack in the weld between the downtube and the headtube.
Sprinting around to get Binnsy sorted means I haven’t spent any time on my own bike and as we’re about to get in the Gondola it becomes apparent that the back wheel’s trashed; badly buckled with a crack in the rim and a number of loose spokes. It’s too late to change it now, but it’s only seeding so all I have to do is roll out of the start gate and I’m in the race. Fortunately though, or unfortunately for the rider concerned, seeding is delayed before it’s even started due to a red flag on the motorway, so I stay in the gondola and head straight back to the van. The wheel change doesn’t go well and whilst I’m trying to switch everything over the call is made that seeding is cancelled and it’s just going to be one race run. I need to get back up to the start. Binnsy’s still up there and I’m stressing. After switching end caps the wheel now fits in the dropouts but the gears are all over the place. Step forward Hopetech’s Dan Bladon who sorts it all out for me. When you think of the word “hero” you don’t generally think of a young lad from Hedben Bridge but heroism comes in many forms. Cheers Dan, you’re a legend!
By the time I’m back in the start hut it’s been over 5 hours since my last run. I think this is the thing I find hardest about racing and I honestly don’t know how the pros do it. It’s OK knocking out runs when you’re on a roll but coming in cold and putting down your best run of the weekend is difficult. The top section goes OK but as I come off the Boardwalk I’m choking with a dry throat. “Not here” I think, “by the Deer Gate yes, but we’ve only just started”. The wind’s got up and it’s dusty, maybe that’s why.
In the end it wasn’t the stomach bug, the crash out of the start gate or the stress of the bust wheel that got me; it was a mix of fear and fatigue. As I hurtled towards the Hazard Hoofer, arms pumped up like Popeye on my first full run of the weekend I had to make the call “are you doing it or not? If you are then it’s no brakes all the way to the end. If you’re not, then there’s no point doing any of it”. In the split second I had to decide I chose the latter. I’m annoyed with myself now but at the time I didn’t think my sparrow’s wings had the strength to pull up and the consequences of not making it this week were just too great, so I cruised home with a 7:03 which actually put me in 15th place. Apologies to the rider behind me who was annoyed that I’d held them up on the Motorway, I didn’t hear you shout until we passed the Tissot jump.
At the other end of the Vets field John Young took the win with a 5:12. A time that would’ve been good enough for second place in Expert. What makes it all the more remarkable is that John’s still riding a 5-year-old V10 with 26” wheels that hasn’t had a shock or fork service in a couple of years. It’s definitely about the bike! Round 1 winner Nathan Cavalier took second with 2018 winner Marky Neal in third. Neil had a great result, finishing in fifth place, his first ever podium at Fort Bill and fully vilifying his decision to have his meals with the fast lads!
Binnsy posted his worst ever time at Fort William, a 6:35 but it was still good enough for fifth place in the Grand Vets. The top three were well clear though with Alastair Maclennan taking the win from Pete Little with John Cobb in third.
In Elite Men it was Gee Atherton who edged out Danny Hart by 0.1 with Brayton in third. After a big crash on Friday that resulted in a new set of cranks our team mate Kieran Davies fought back to take 28th place with a 5:03. Good skills young ‘un!
In Elite Women Tahnee Seagrave decided not to race but it was still tight at the top with Rachel Atherton taking the win from Marine Caribou by just 0.42 with Katy Curd in third.
Neither of those categories were as tight as the Juvenile’s though where Andrew Georgeson edged out Dominic Platt by just 0.075 after over five minutes of racing. Lewis Duncan took third. In the Youth category Dennis Luffman was the only rider to go sub-five, taking the win by five seconds from Oisin O’Callaghan with Preston Williams in third. In Junior Men Jamie Edmondson posted an incredible 4:54 which would’ve been good enough for 21st in Elite Men. Luke Mumford was second with James Elliott in third. In Senior Men it was Matt Bayliss taking first, Todd Kearney second and Scott Woolley third. Biggest winning margin of in the Men’s categories went to ‘Jersey T’ in Masters, putting nine seconds into John Holbrook with Michael Vickers in third. In Expert Jay Teague claimed first from Euan Thomson with Billy Matthews in third.
Biggest winning margin of the weekend went to Stacey Fisher in Senior Women, winning by an incredible 52 seconds from Brittany Littlewood with Ellie Dewdney in third. There was also a huge gap between first and second in Junior Women, with Tea Jenson claiming victory by 25 seconds from Phoebe Gale with Aimi Kenyon in third.
In quoting contestants from 80’s TV gameshow Bullseye, fellow Vet Phil Gray sums up our weekend perfectly: “I’ve had a great time Jim. I might not have won the Star Prize but at least I’m leaving with my bus fare home”.
Shout out to all the injured riders, hope you all heal quick and you’re back for the next National at the end of June; we’ll be back then. Thank you to all our sponsors this season: Singletrack, Revolution Bike Park, Geometron Bikes, Commencal, Schwalbe and Tyre Yoghurt. Don’t forget to follow @makingupthenumbersracing on Instagram for additional content.
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