Photo Epic: The Uniqueness of the Fort William DH World Cup

Jun 6, 2020
by Ross Bell  
This weekend should have been the annual pilgrimage to the Scottish Highlands for the Downhill World Cup circus, but instead, we're left to reminisce on years gone by and look tentatively forward to the rescheduled race season starting in a couple of months. The Fort William round has been a mainstay of the WC series and has played host to some historic moments and races over the years. It's a unique challenge for bikes and bodies alike so we've decided to pay tribute to that couple of kilometres of granite straddling the Aonach Mòr hillside that has given us so many iconic moments over the years.

The Heritage

The roots hung up more than one rider but it was here that Tracy Moseley pulled ahead of Rachel during her race run.

A tribute run for Steve Smith was organized for the end of track walk today with almost every top rider making their way down in one long and dusty train.
Minnaar on the bottom of the fishline pig pile and People s Champ Steve Peat on top with the day s fastest bike.

The World Cup has been visiting Nevis Range since 2002 which means it's carved itself quite the history over the years. In fact, for that matter, it was in 2002 that Chris Kovarik laid down one of the most legendary runs ever to dismantle the opposition by just over 14 seconds. 3 seasons later Steve Peat took the win he craved so much and in doing so created one of the most iconic images ever as he lifted his Orange 224 above his head surrounded by the deafening roar of approval from the crowd. I'm sure winning at home sits pretty high in the list of career achievements for UK racers of which there have been a few... Steve Peat, Tracy Moseley, The Athertons, Tahnee Seagrave etc... It played host to the World Championships in 2007 where Sabrina Jonnier and Sam Hill took home the coveted rainbow stripes and gold medal after another action-packed day, Scottish Junior Ruaridh Cunningham gave the crowd something to shout about too. Greg Minnaar snagged 3 wins in a row between 2015 and 2017, even taking the first-ever win on 29" wheels in the latter.

The Weather

Weather came across Loch Wet Willy in waves today lashing the venue with high winds and more sideways rain.
Drainage trenches were feverishly made when the skies opened up this morning and water came rushing into the pits.

How s that umbrella working for you Moritz
A race day UCI rainbow descends on the Fort William pits early in the morning.

It is Scotland after all... Occasionally we get lucky and spend the weekend basking in glorious summer sunshine but more often than not the weather leaves us scrabbling for waterproofs and umbrellas which are both somewhat useless thanks to the ferocity of the wind and rain that sweeps off the Atlantic and onto the mountains of Scotland's west coast. 4 seasons in a day is standard and it can change in a matter of minutes. There are not many places to hide on the side of Aonach Mòr aside from the top gondola station and cafe! We've had weather so bad that it's caused schedule changes like in 2015 when qualifying was cancelled and run early on Sunday morning instead. One of Fort William's quirks is that some riders say it can actually run better in the wet than the dry thanks to the moisture binding up the often loose gravel surface.

The Track

Perhaps Fort William didn t like it when we said Croatia was the rockiest World Cup of the season.
Classic Fort William.

Loic Bruni over the river gap as more water rained down on him from above. There was no avoiding moisture last year.
Adam Brayton hitting the eject button.

The track in Fort William just goes and goes and goes a bit more. All the while beating up your arms and legs.

The Fort William track doesn't tend to change much year to year aside from some different taping in the woods, we have seen a couple of new sections, extensions and tweaks over the years but largely it's the same ribbon of granite and gravel cutting through the boggy moorland, a tough environment to build a track in. Just shy of 3km and 600 metres of vertical drop, the fastest race times are a little over the 4.5-minute mark which makes it one of the longest and gruelling tracks of the season, many riders suffer badly with arm and hand pump on this beast. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse you're left with the superphysical lower selection which requires plenty of pedalling and pumping action before the final sprint along the motorway section.

The Midges...

If you happened to talk to Rob Warner this morning and thought he may have been indulging in the libations a little early in the day you would be wrong. Warner found the the foul tasting Spicy Devil was just the thing for warding off the midges.
Luca Shaw ready to take on the midges...

Every year you hear photogs and racers bitch about the midges. Most years they really aren t too bad. But an exceptionally mild winter saw them out in clouds on the tracksides particularly down low. Long sleeves long pants and a midgie net were the only ways to stay sane.
The Canyon squad know how to deal with the pesky Scottish midge

The local midge population is particularly savage in Fort William. For those that don't know midges are tiny flying insects that love nothing more than to feast in their swarms on unsuspecting mountain bikers or spectators watching trackside. Midge nets and repellants can help but more often than not there is no escape from these little bloody thirsty beasties unless you're a racer, a DH bike can outrun midges. Fact. The midges have got to be one of the only downsides to the Fort William World Cup.

The Abundance of Mechanicals

Out of air out of luck.

Specialized mechanic Kev Joly gets stuck into a wheel build this morning.
Lots of wheel building in the pits between runs as riders bash down this relentless track.

The track isn't only sore on bodies but bikes too. There's no hiding from the rocks and square edge hits which play havoc on tires and rims especially, flats and exploded wheels are far from uncommon and the telltale sound of a rim rolling over granite in unmistakable trackside. Take a stroll through the pits and you'll find mechanics busy assembling spare wheels all weekend. As a rider, you'll hope to get any mechanicals out the way in practice but we've seen a lot of runs ruined and races turned on their heads by mechanicals in Fort William. For example, just ask 2018's fastest qualifier Luca Shaw.

The Crowd and the Home Hopefuls

Aaron Gwin roars into the finish line as the massive crowd roars right back. The fans here in Fort William really are second to none on the Word Cup circuit.

Stevie Smith inspiring the next generation.
In the form of a few thousand Peaty faces

Reece Wilson hauling... One of a handful of Scottish underdogs who could go the distance on Sunday.
Reece hoisting the Saltire high in front of the home fans.

Year after year over 20,000 passionate fans cram themselves into the finish area and line the track top to bottom, creating one of the most electric atmospheres of the year. The way riders appear into sight over the iconic Tissot/Visit Scotland arch jump before plunging towards the line only heightens the chorus of cheers, horns, and bells. Whilst the Brits are the favourites and get the loudest cheers, all the riders get their fair share of support, particularly if they trigger a green light up on the timing screen. The crowd have seen a decent chunk of UK success over the years and more recently in 2018 got the opportunity to witness a Scottish racer step onto the podium as Reece Wilson took a hugely popular 4th place finish.

The Landscape

The mood this morning was gloom over Fort William.
Apparently 2018 was one of the best years in recent times for racing at the Fort and I could easily see why.

Coming into the Scottish highlands. It s a land of moody beauty. We couldn t be happier to be here for this fourteenth World Cup at Fort William battling the rain and midges.

Under the shadow of the UK's highest mountain Ben Nevis, the classic view over the lochs and open hillsides set Fort William apart from a lot of typical WC venues which largely take place in Alpine settings and forests. The moody and muted tones of the landscape make for an epic setting and can often produce some of the World Cup photographers' favourite images of the season. The "commute" from the airports to Fort William takes you through some of the most stunning scenery anywhere in the World.

Thanks, Fort William, see you in 2021...


  • 17 0
 THE best weekend of the year. Heading up through Glen Coe is when the excitment really kicks in...till next time Fort Bill!
  • 3 0
 Fort Bill is honestly my favourite place to be. The weather has it's ups and downs, mostly downs lol. Staying in Glencoe and hitting the downhill track on the ski slope. Then travelling down to enjoy the crowds. The boardwalk on the red or newly (black) is so much fun. Always a favourite to watch regardless of the weather. Even with the attach of the midges!!!
  • 2 0
 So true!
  • 1 0
 So sad that the race has been cancelled this year, we have been going for many years and it is the start of the summer for us. Its so much fun meeting and catching up with friends that I only get to see once a year. Even the midges and weather can't dampen a great event.
  • 2 0
 Maybe they should take the grim donut to fort bill. Bigger wheels and slacker head tube, the granite doesn't stand a chance! well... maybe a little one Smile
  • 3 0
 You'll all be glad to know the midges are f!ckin horrendous at the moment. Weather is perfect for the wee buggers.
  • 3 0
 the midges up there don't seem to be bothered by any weather conditions. wind, rain or sun ill still get eaten alive
  • 2 0
 Haven't been for a few years, damn I miss it, and to Anyone who's never been and says it's an easy track. Go ride it, you'll soon change your mind!
  • 1 0
 my world seems rocked without the muddy mess each year..... watching the craziest runs imaginable by the greatest WILLING to risk it ALL. Friggin unbelievable
  • 1 0
 My favourite sporting event. Really wanted to see Cathro ride this year - he'd have got fantastic support. (I was confident he'd get the necessary points).
  • 2 0
 The landscape and the light; there's nothing quite like it.
  • 1 0
 Fort Bill The Gathering tomorrow? Virtual DH any ideas?
  • 1 0
 Wait, midges>mosquitoes?
  • 7 0
 Nope, not one bit.

Midges actually have a jaw like bite action and are utter bastards.

In fact, midges = many bites Wink
  • 1 0
 @elliott-20: that they are!
  • 1 0
 @elliott-20: midges>mosquitoes means midges are worse than mosquitoes Wink
  • 2 0
 Mosquito bites are probably worse, but with midges it's the shear numbers. The little fuckers get everywhere, up your nose, in your ears, it can turn you a bit crazy when they're really bad.
  • 1 0
 The big red Stevie Train would’ve been super cool to see.
  • 1 0
 On my list to do!
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