A Day In The Life Of… Fort William World Cup

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A look behind the scenes of Fort William’s biggest weekend of the year.

Words Samantha Saskia Dugon & Chipps Photography Samantha Saskia Dugon

As with all great things in life, the smoother and more professional the outward appearance of a venue, event or personality, the more work has gone in behind the scenes to make it that way. This series lifts the veil from some of the iconic British mountain bike institutions, showing just some of the backstage work that goes on to keep events and locations running smoothly. This issue features the Fort William Downhill World Cup.

It’s a highlight in many a British mountain biker’s calendar; a long drive north to spend a weekend surrounded by midges as they watch the pros bomb it down the infamous Fort William track.

This year, we headed up and got behind the scenes of the event. Before most of the spectators had even packed up and begun their journey north, the crew at Nevis Range were already hard at work nailing in the last pieces to the track ready for the hectic weekend.

To the casual (and even the rabidly keen) spectator, the Fort William World Cup just happens; they will have given little thought to what’s been going on behind the scenes for months. Everyone makes the long journey north expecting to find a fully operational, world-class downhill race for their entertainment. And that’s what they get when they arrive in the small Nevis Range ski resort, just outside Fort William.

Those who look in earlier in the week, say on Wednesday morning, might still find a few rough edges and works-in-progress, but by Thursday, the team trucks are in, the banners are up and the course is fully marked up for the course walk and Claudio’s first run.

Work has, however, been going on behind the scenes, essentially since the final day of the last event, a year ago. For an event of this scale, nothing can be left to chance, or until the last minute. For example, there is a finite number of truck-sized big screens in the UK; it would (now) be unthinkable to have the finish arena without one, so this needs booking in advance. The same can be said of the grandstand seating, the loos, the catering vans and the fencing for the team pits. Someone, somewhere, will have had these on a whiteboard or a spreadsheet, with a date and a note to order them on time. And the process of getting all of these disparate essentials to a relatively remote corner of the UK would have had to start before race weekend. Nearly all of the infrastructure will have preceded the tens of thousands of fans converging on this small town in the Highlands, often travelling up on those same twisty roads past Loch Lomond and Rannoch Moor…

Closer to home, there’s the extra demand on other ‘essential’ services that are often taken for granted. There’s usually free Wi-Fi available in the Pinemarten Café on a normal weekend, but with over 200 photographers and reporters in the media room, as well as tens of thousands of spectators all wanting to send a photo (or 500) to the internet, the stress on the communications infrastructure of this out-of-town location means it’s pushed to the max. Likewise, it wouldn’t do to run out of milk, coffee, loo rolls or beer. It all has to be prepared in advance and ready for action on the day.

Planning for the 2019 event began before the racers had even been down the hill for the 2018 event. The hotels for organisers, officials, Red Bull Media and marshals’ hostels for the following year are booked on checkout. During the next 12 months, there is no real let up in activity, as exhibitors are booked, sponsors confirmed, media accredited, team spaces reserved and other essentials organised.

Around a fortnight before the race, everything that can be confirmed is confirmed and the lead-up to the event itself starts. Marks on spreadsheets and on notepads start to become physical reality. Ten days before the crowds arrive, work starts on building the grandstand. With eight days to go, the trucks start arriving with a dozen Portakabins® for organisers, medics and officials. A week before the event, the organisers are on site and the 8,250m2 Team and Expo pits start to be marked out.

In the final week, even before spectators load up cars for the weekend road trip, the course is closed and the final inspection and taping takes place. Into the ground go 800 poles and 12.5km of course tape (sponsor logos the right way up, naturally) is strung between the poles and where possible, trees. By Thursday morning the course is ready for the riders’ track walk and the UCI Commissaire inspection.

Fort William in numbers:

  • Organisation Team: Rare Management: 4 – Mike, Lesley, an accountant and an intern (who works with them for 7 months in the run-up to the World Cup)
  • Marshals – 45
  • Overall volunteer numbers – 120
  • Medical Team – 25
  • Red Bull Media House TV crew – more than 70
  • Other media in attendance – more than 260
  • Staff lunches during the event, including build-up (some are packed lunches, some hot lunches) – 1,119

Fort William has been lucky enough to have sunshine over the past few years for the World Cup, but this year the event wasn’t so fortunate as Scotland was treated to a week of endless rain and wind – just in time for World Cup weekend. This posed a lot of problems for those in the pits and pickaxes were shared around for people to create makeshift drainage ditches, or more realistically named ‘moats’.

With pouring rain and a slow set-up day, those working at the event took the opportunity to have some fun with many taking cover under half-erected gazebos to catch up with friends and find entertainment. One photographer, Boris, took to trying his hand at the now infamous Kendama toy, which has recently become all the rage among riders on the World Cup circuit, while others dragged out their remote controlled cars and gave them a good grip test over the wet Fort William gravel.

Some people, however, came prepared for the rain – with their mannequins covered in plastic bags Commencal 100% had Fort William-proofed its display, meaning that little set-up was required. Simply pull mannequin out of van, place it on the stand and de-bag, job done. Now where’s that beer?

You might be misled into thinking that being a World Cup mechanic is just about fixing bikes, but as any mechanic will tell you, you’ll be the ones helping out to drive, set up and pack down the pits, and provide some laughter along the way. They’ll tell you that you need to be open-minded to being able to do anything necessary to keep the pits ticking along nicely, even if it includes grabbing a pickaxe and building yourself some drainage access. Aaron Gwin’s mechanic Juan came prepared and was one of the first people to be out digging in preparation for the torrential downpour that would later follow.

Just behind the Intense pits and with an event to promote the release of a new social media channel, Canyon UK’s marketing man Jack was busy at work labelling up beers for the punters, after he had dug his own moat. After some very careful precision labelling and some quick snaps ready for social media, Jack took five minutes to admire his home from home for the weekend and the set-up he’d just done on his own.

Before the crowds descended and the madness ensued, Martyn Ashton and Danny MacAskill were busy filming their recent tandem video but that didn’t stop Danny from staying for the weekend and stopping by the Crankbrothers pit afterwards to have a catch up and sign one of their displays.

With the rain coming down hard and the temperature staying at a muggy 14° for race day, lots of people headed into the food marquee to have a break from the rain, only to face rising humidity levels. They found a massive gazebo with not much ventilation, stacked full of damp people and hot ovens. But still, the atmosphere was buzzing as, after all, it is a World Cup and it’s only once a year you get to see all the pros come to your country and whiz past you – even if you only get to see your favourite rider for a split second as they warp speed it down the motorway section.

Meanwhile halfway up the mountain the 4x practice got underway, and with no signs of the weather easing off, some competitors took waterproofing into their own hands and prepared for the worst-case scenario: a flood.

It wouldn’t be Scotland without some bagpipes, and the Fort William tourism office did not forget this. Atop the mountain before qualis was one lone guy, fully kitted out in traditional Scottish gear, playing away as riders went about their warm-up routines. It’s little touches like this that have seen Fort William snag the riders’ choice award on many occasions.

Being on top of a Scottish mountain, riders struggled to find enough space to do their warm-up routines, which would probably have to be double in length in order to resist the cold and biting winds at the top of this open moorland.

Meanwhile, in the media room on a damp Sunday afternoon, just before the men’s elite final was about to commence, some ‘sniffer dogs’ entered with the aim of seemingly wanting to give everyone something for their nightmares, once they’d finished with their long night of editing. With the amount of Red Bull and coffee being consumed in there, it was a bold move to send in some scary-looking characters like these.

As the finals began, the finish area filled up, full of people donning their waterproof gear or running to Shimano to grab one of their plastic overalls, it was clear to see though that the outdoor industry has fully embraced an abundance of bright colours for all its winter gear with the crowds glowing all varieties of blues, greens, oranges and yellow.

And it wasn’t just people who’d wrapped themselves up – it was so damp that even some good little dogs were wearing their waterproof finery, but something tells me they’ll be having a bath too, as soon as they get home.

By 5pm on race day, the racing and awards will have taken place. As the fans are getting a final beer, or tracking down their heroes for a congratulatory selfie, a small army of volunteers are out clearing rubbish from the arena. The course marshals walk down the course, stacking poles and collecting tape and rubbish as they go.

By 9pm, most of the team trucks and expo traders have left the venue. Traders have to get their now-muddy goods back to the warehouse in time for Monday morning’s business and the team trucks are already heading to the ferry, ready to start it all over again in Leogang, Austria, in just three days’ time. If the weather plays ball, the Nevis Range World Cup course will be back open to the public by Monday lunchtime.

By Tuesday the Portakabins® and loos will have gone and the grandstand will be disassembled into its component parts.

By Wednesday you’d hardly know that a world-class event with hundreds of racers and tens of thousands of spectators had been here, but planning will have already begun for the next one.

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