The United Kingdom has exactly one track suitable for World Cup downhill racing, and it’s situated at the Nevis Range ski resort near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. According to the Nevis Range blurb, the track is “built to test world-class riders and their bikes to the limit”, or something like that. The gondola juddered out of the bottom station and began its crawl up the mountain, with me inside and my Hustler dangling on the back. I wondered, not without a little fear, what kind of a “testing” would be dished out to a so-so rider on a cross-country bike with Domains bolted to the front.
I’ve known about the Fort William track ever since it was built, and like many other Scottish mountain bikers (I should imagine) I’ve oscillated between wanting to ride it, and being scared to go anywhere near it. I nearly did it last year, but after watching this YouTube footage I was scared off by the gratuitous amounts of big air. But this year, with a week off work and nothing else to do, I oscillated my way onto the 9.07 train from Glasgow Queen Street to Mallaig, via Fort William.
Some magazine poll somewhere voted this the most scenic railway journey in the world, and once you get over the shock of passing through the nastiest parts of Glasgow, it probably is. The journey across Rannoch Moor fills you with a massive sense of “Whose crazy idea was it to build a railway here?” And if you carry on from Fort Bill to Mallaig, you’re on the route of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express. (The big bridgey thing is the Glenfinnan Viaduct.) In fact, if you catch the Jacobite Steam Train, it probably is the Hogwarts Express.
But I digress. I analyze things too much, and if I thought about the consequences of everything I was going to do, I would never even get out of bed. I found that the secret is just to take steps one at a time, without thinking about the ultimate goal. Get out of bed, get dressed, get packed, get on the train, get off at Fort Bill. Follow the (very nice) cycle path along the A82 towards Inverness. When you reach Torlundy, leave the road and follow the signs through Leanachan Forest. See the downhill track slashing clean down the side of Aonach Mor, a white scar of switchbacking loose dirt and rock gardens, recently regraded from “Black” to “Bike Park Orange”. Oh no! But that’s the beauty of the baby steps method, by the time I actually think about the stupidity of what I’m going to do, as old Will said, “I am in blood stepped in so far…”
The next step was to get a gondola pass, and if you’re not a regular user, to do this you have to sign a “participation statement”. It’s basically a waiver that says, “I understand that the downhill tracks are hardcore badass and if I get hurt or killed riding them, it’s not Nevis Range’s problem.” I actually like signing these things. I hate the culture of litigation. I ride mountain bikes in full knowledge of all the awful things that could go wrong, and I wouldn’t dream of blaming anyone else for an accident.
Well, except maybe Mr. Newton and his law of universal gravitation, which says that objects attract each other with a force proportional to their masses and the inverse square of the distance between them. Standing on the “Pinkbike.com” start platform, feeling like a total newbie in the ridiculous plastic body armour I hired from the bike shop, that gravitation seemed awfully strong. But there was now only one baby step remaining, to release the brakes and put in a couple of good cranks, and that was what I did.
The little board at the gondola station said “DH track conditions: Fast and dry”, and indeed it was. The speed began to build amongst clouds of white dust. Right hand berm, hip jump, doof! came up short, into a left hander, some rocks, boardwalk, more rocks, left hander onto more boardwalk, Yeeha I feel like Steve Peat! Then the first of the big rock gardens, Hey what does all this red spray paint mean, Smash, Arrgh, fuck! I fly over the bars, bounce off an enormous red crash mat (no doubt placed by Nevis Range in fear of litigation), plough along on my side for a bit, and I’m lying face down in the dirt, everything hurts in spite of the armour, and I hear a hissing noise which is of course, to cap it all, a puncture.
Could this be why real downhillers walk the course before riding it for the first time? I had plenty of time to reflect on this as I mended the puncture, a process whose details I won’t bore you with. Was this real mountain biking at last? If you go to a major trail centre like Glentress, the trails are smooth and manicured. Even the rock gardens are just token features, with smooth rocks deliberately placed to give an exciting feeling of riding over rocks without actually being dangerous. But here it was as if the rocks were just left the way they were on the hill, or worse, arranged in diabolical jagged heaps to “test world-class riders to their limit”. And yet in the middle of all this hardness and machismo, someone thoughtfully placed a big foam crash-pad.
After a few more of these comedy crashes, I somehow made it into the section that the DH riders call the “motorway” and was able to lay off my burning brakes at last. As the name suggests, this is fast and smooth, but unlike the M74 it’s packed with big TV-friendly jumps, each one with fire road access and viewing platform for the World Cup camera crews. This is the section I was afraid of, after watching all the big air madness on YouTube. But now I was actually riding it, the jumps didn’t seem that big! They were only about two-thirds of the size they had grown to in my mind. Ok, I admit I was so tired from the top section that I couldn’t go fast enough to clear them, but nothing bad happened when I came up short, and in my book, any jump that you can case without getting hurt is an easy jump. The World Cup riders must be pedalling like stink all the way down here to get the amount of air that they do.
The last bit of the motorway drops straight into the Nevis Range car park. It’s the main part that punters at the World Cup will see, so they made it pretty big. You plunge down a steep chute called “The Wall”, a flat left-hander, then over a huge mound of dirt which is also a berm for the 4x track (with a little kicker ramp that you can use to launch yourself clean over the hill, if you’re faster than me and didn’t scrub speed before going down the Wall) and finally two large drops to flat. Bang, doof, the dent in the Hustler’s seat tube from the rocker link slamming into it gets bigger. Thud, screech of brakes, holy shit, it’s over and I kind of survived it. “Are you coming back up for another go”, asks a guy on a Santa Cruz Bullit who saw me crash on the way down. He came all the way up from Portsmouth to do this track, which is dedication. Yeah, I’m coming.
Waiting for the train in Ft. Bill station, I got talking to an elderly couple whose son, they told me, was into mountain biking. “He broke his collarbone down at Glentress, you know.” Oh, I said, did it heal lopsided? Yes, he now has one shoulder wider than the other. And yet he never signed a participation statement. They commented on my leg, which looked like it had been cheese-gratered in spite of the knee and shin guards.
“You mean you got hurt like that, and you went back to ride the downhill course again?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s like falling off a horse, you have to get straight back on again, or you’ll lose your confidence.” Or something like that.