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 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.
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 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 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
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
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.
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...