Following the incredibly damp but rather enjoyable experience of Fort William and the Highlands last summer, Rik and I decided to have another shot at watching the Downhill World Cup, possibly even in less horrific weather, hope springs eternal and all that. We took the precaution this time of booking a B&B, however, and our cunning meteorological reverse-psychology paid off, insofar as the universe arranged itself to deal a fortnight of blazing heatwave out to the northern reaches of Great Britain at the end of May and start of June. In the days leading up to last weekend it became clear that the conditions in the mountains of Scotland were about as good as they are ever likely to get, so we rearranged a few things to facilitate some riding of our own on the days around the pre-booked main event.
We loaded the van on Friday morning and set off with a couple of possibilities for a ride on the way up in mind. The further north we went the better the weather got, and just before Glasgow we elected to detour via the high road; specifically the summit of Ben Lomond. From the start at Rowardennan it took us a couple of hours, mostly pushing, to climb the 950 or so meters to the top, through improbably glorious sunshine, with only a slight breeze to moderate the 30°C heat. The views all the way up were beautiful and the panorama from the top was spectacular, stretching all the way from the edges of the Southern Uplands right up to the distant outline of Ben Nevis on the horizon, almost fifty miles away.The rocky, technical descent started pretty well, until Rik clipped his rear tyre on a pointy rock, losing pressure, which led to him subsequently picking up three successive punctures, after which he gave up putting tubes in the now terminally damaged wheel and rolled down on the grass as best he was able. I picked my own way down the entertainingly rough trail, not much more quickly, reaching the van only five minutes sooner. The descent took around an hour, but half of that was spent dealing with mechanicals. I was glad to tick off my first proper Scottish Munro, and on a bicycle too, although it was a shame that Rik had his ride ruined by bad luck. We rolled in to Fort William much later than anticipated, but still managed to track down beer, burgers and chips in a chain pub before turning in, worn out and slightly sunburnt.The first job after breakfast on Saturday was obtaining a new wheel, and Nevis Cycles in Inverlochy sorted us out at a fair price. Patched up and rolling again we set out to explore the trail up to the CIC Hut below the imposing northern crags of Ben Nevis itself. On the way in we encountered a couple of (strangely familiar) riders, who shared some useful local knowledge on the best route back down the hill, before we started the slog up the valley beside the Allt a’Mhuilinn. The weather was less scorching than the previous day but still beautifully sunny; the mountainous scenery was doing a very passable imitation of a corner of the Alps, with snow lurking in the gullies and huge precipices all around.I didn’t enjoy the descent as much as I had hoped I might, chiefly due to the numerous wheel-sized culverts in the trail, which were so frequent, square and large as to prevent any sustained fun. By the time we reached the deer-fence gate I was thoroughly tired of hopping the bike to negotiate these obstacles, or dismounting for the really big ones. I had clattered into several of them with sufficient speed to thoroughly unnerve me to the point where I made a total mess of the informal downhill line we chose through the woods. I even ended up carrying my bike down to the track at the bottom after a painful top-tube interaction, and was quite glad to head for base along a tame access road.
After quick showers at the B & B we jumped on the free bus to the Nevis Range to explore the World Cup event village and watch the 4X racing. We bumped into a few friends, ogled lots of very expensive equipment, spotted numerous mountain bike celebrities, and generally enjoyed ourselves until things ran down and we made our way back to town for a couple more beers before bedtime.Race day dawned even warmer, without a cloud in the sky. We packed up the van and abandoned it in Sheil Bridge in order to make a speedier getaway that evening, catching a very busy shuttle bus into what was already a rather livelier event than last year’s. We explored the pits more closely, whilst dodging riders returning from early morning practice. At around half eleven, after rider introductions, we were privileged to see Martyn Ashton ride down the final section of the main downhill course on his modified Nicolai, an incredible achievement, and I hope we get to view a bit more footage of his run before too long.As the racing started we began to make our way up the course, watching first the under-23s and then the women racing their way over dry, dusty jumps and through the tricky new sections in the woods, before the elite men started coming down the hill as we climbed closer to the top gondola station.We saw Steve Peat take off on his last ever Fort William World Cup run, distinctive on his lairy custom-painted tartan V10, and then zoomed down in the gondola to watch the final twenty or so riders on the big screen. Greg Minaar made what turned out to be the winning run just after we arrived in the arena. The remaining riders threw everything they had at the dusty, blown-out track but Minaar’s run stood the test and a minute or so into Gee Atherton’s last-man run a front-wheel washout for the Brit effectively confirmed the South African’s sixth Fort William victory.
The most remarkable moment of the day came not at the end of the racing, but at the point when Stevie Smith would have made his run down the course. Following his tragic death less than a month ago, the mountain bike community understandably wanted to mark his passing, and the weekend was full of little touches dedicated to the Canadian: from stickers and t-shirts declaring ‘Long Live Chainsaw’ to rider jump trains and banners and, naturally, chainsaws all over the place. But the crowning moment of the weekend’s remembrance took the form of a specially sanctioned ‘ghost run’ during the elite men’s World Cup race itself. The usually raucous crowds watched in silence as the big screen panned down the empty course, showing the space where the talented 26 year old should have been; the shot swept through the trees and down the motorway jumps, from camera to camera, approaching the finish line in sombre stillness, until the arena commentator called home the missing rider and the spectators erupted in celebration of a life cut short, but well lived. It was a moving experience just to be part of that crowd.
As the racing finished we grabbed some food, and took our place in the queue for the bus to Sheil Bridge. A three hour drive later we rolled into the campsite at Torridon, and hastily put up our tent under the fierce attacks of clouds of midges, before retreating inside for a couple of beers in preparation for the final day of our break, which I’ll write up separately in the next few days…