Fort William: A Mighty Challenge
Lung busting, bike breaking, gut wrenching...
Alan Milway is coach to Atherton Racing, has worked with many top riders and teams and has coached 5 World Champions. Here he looks at some of the unique challenges and characteristics of the fast approaching, and mighty, Fort William World Cup.
Words: Alan Milway Photos: Seb Schieck and Mike Rose
After a brief lull in the World Cup season, we are gearing back up for one of the biggest events of the year – Fort William. A staple of the circuit since 2002, it has won ‘event of the year’ many times, and to me is one of the classic World Cup venues, alongside Mont St Anne in Canada.
Ask any rider and this event will be considered a highlight of theirs. However, it is demanding in many ways. Here are some of the problems and challenges we are working to overcome and prepare for – something to bear in mind when you are viewing the live feed of the racing; you’ll know what the guys and girls are going through.
First and foremost, the track is a far cry from the new breed of ‘bike park tracks’ that have featured on the calendar over recent years. At nearly 3km long, Fort William is one of the longest, and run times approach 5mins. It is not just the length that is the problem – it is the brutal terrain you face for the entire duration that wrecks both body and bike. At the recent national race held there, many riders were having to stop mid way down as their forearms were locking up and they simply couldn’t hold on any longer. This track really does separate the men from the boys and you have to be prepared for this track. For UK riders there simply isn’t anything like it unless you travel abroad.
This event is not a mechanic’s favourite, as their workload usually goes up tenfold. Wheels can be ruined in one run (just add that up over the course of an entire race weekend). Chain guides, rear mechs, tyres, brake pads, pedals, chain rings… the list goes on of parts that are often ruined on each and every practice run and will be replaced multiple times over the course of a day of practice. The damage that this track does to the bikes is staggering.
Many results can be ruined by mechanicals and examples are all too common; in 2014 I was coaching both Rach (Atherton) and Manon (Carpenter) as they fought for the top spot throughout the year, and at this event both punctured on this track, which was a bitter pill to swallow.
The year before in 2013 I watched as Gee (Atherton) stormed in to view and on to the bottom jumps section – but wasn’t getting immediately back on the gas as he landed each jump. It was only fractional delays, but I could see something wasn’t right. Ever so slightly soft-pedaling… he had banged his chain on a rock during the run and it was badly damaged so he wasn’t putting in the big torque pedal strokes, as he knew it might snap any second. It only ‘just’ made it down and although he went on to win the race, the result could have been very different had it not been for a tough little Shimano chain link. Watch the feed and you will see him look at his back wheel and gears at the finish line.
The track snakes down from a very exposed start area, down the barren mountainside at the full mercy of the wind until you reach the ‘deer gate’. This is a point of salvation for the riders as it is close to one–third of the way down and you now enter the tree line and away from the worst of the sideways wind and rain that you have probably been subject to until that point.
Aerodynamics may be deemed a dirty word in downhill, but it really does play a part in conditions like these. At the inaugural running of this event Chris Kovarik demolished the field by over 14 seconds. The biggest winning margin ever, and achieved in a skin suit and flat pedals. Did his kit play a part in the demolition or was it sheer talent and power that created such a margin? I would say a combination of these factors, but the speeds are so high and the track is so open that back in 2008 Chris Porter’s Mojo riders were contracted to wear a special skin suit for this event. Chris is a big proponent of aerodynamics (and improving every aspect of performance on the bike for that matter) and his riders made a big case for the benefit of skin suits by posting fantastic results, with Ben Cathro finishing inside the top 10. I have written an article about this subject (published in Dirt and well worth a look), but this really is a track where you will see riders tuck where they can, and when you overlay footage of one rider on to another over the bottom jump section, there is a clear difference between riders who are tucking–in to an aerodynamic tuck, and launching up and being a wind sail.
The weather in the Highlands is often very changeable and you must prepare for wind and rain. And if it isn’t windy, prepare for midges. The little buggers are hard to deal with, and the top tip is Avon’s Skin So Soft lotion, which seems to be a very good midge repellent! We have had some amazing weather there, and there is no better place in the world to be when the sun shines, but then I have also hiked up and down that track all day in brutal conditions with soaking wet feet for nine hours solid, so be warned!
Fort William is a small Highlands town, set far, far away from almost anything. Unlike many of the alpine resorts that we visit– that have interlinking chairlift networks, varied accommodation and big bucks winter season infrastructure – Fort William is somewhat isolated. However, with the quality of the track, and the fervent support of the UK fans, it becomes a real destination and thousands upon thousands of fans make the yearly pilgrimage up the A82.
This is where a real issue for riders and teams comes to light; accommodation. I can tell you now that many of the team managers will have booked their accommodation years ago (seriously). After one too many sub-par experiences, when you find a place that works, you grab it and stick with it in Fort William. The town is full of small residential B&B’s, with just a few hotels available. None are walking distance from the venue, and many are a relatively long cycle ride. If you are late booking up, you may really struggle to find anywhere suitable to stay, which does add to the stress or preparation.
Linked with this is actually finding somewhere to eat. You will be up the hill all day riding one of the world’s most brutal tracks, then head back in the car to the B&B, change, and then instead of relaxing/flaking to eat food and rest, will have to get back in the car and head in to town to try and find a restaurant to grab dinner. I have seen riders walking up and down the high street well in to the evening searching in vain for a table. The restaurants are always packed out, and it is can be a lottery to find anywhere to eat. I know of a World Cup winner who had to resort to a McDonalds the night before the race as they simply couldn’t find somewhere to eat. Strange but true.
At Trek Factory DH we have tried to work around this by booking a house away from town and bringing a chef who cooks every meal, so when the riders return from riding there is no rush or panic to try and get food. Yes, this is a luxury and we know it, but at Fort William it really comes in to play.
Above all, what really makes Fort William an event you really want to win is the fans. THOUSANDS of them. Last year over 19,000 people watched the racing, and the noise made as the riders drop in to the finish arena is far and away the best atmosphere I have experienced in my 15 years of being at World Cups. They are knowledgeable, passionate and hunt out the riders in the pits. It makes you feel like the sport really does reach the masses and the attention paid to the bikes and riders is incredible. If you only attend this race, you may think every event is like this. Alas, they aren’t! Some are poorly attended, with little atmosphere, but not Fort William!
Although fans are an amazing benefit and addition to the racing, they aren’t without their challenges from a logistics point of view. Sponsors, friends, family and media all want to be a part of this weekend (especially for the UK riders), and the riders certainly want to accommodate, but it does add an element of pressure, time commitment and focus. Most races may have a few people dropping by the pits to say hi, but at Fort William there are crowds who all know the riders and want to hang out. Big sponsors often choose this race to visit so you must give them due attention, the BBC, or mainstream media outlets often send someone up, and the pits never look so full! I have witnessed riders trying to negotiate a 400m cycle from finish line to pits, and take 15mins at walking pace as there were people to say hi to, take photographs with etc. All between crucial practice runs, it is a tricky balance.
If you haven’t been to this race, please make a point of trying to go, it really is the essence of ‘Downhill Mountain biking’. If you can go this year, grab a chainsaw, remove the chain, fill it with 2 stroke fuel and take it with you to make some noise and pay respect to Stevie Smith, whose loss I am still struggling to get my head around. Long Live Chainsaw.