The infamous venue of Fort William always puts on a show, regardless of the conditions. This was a home race for the team, so we went into it with perhaps more pressure than anywhere else. But came out of it with huge learnings, a lot of smiles and some of the best results for the team yet.
The Scottish Highlands are a bit of a gem, nestled way up north in the UK. Driving up past Glasgow takes you from city life into some of the wildest landscapes on the island. The Glencoe pass feels like the gates to a different land and it’s been a long few years since the World Cup circus has graced this place. So there was an excitement bubbling away in the back of everyone’s minds as the World Cup approached.
So too was perhaps some nervousness. For all the team this was a home race, which is a funny term as for some of the team you could be well into Austria in the same amount of drive time. While it’s the same United Kingdom, there might not have been that home race advantage that people outside of the UK might think.
With that in mind, we set about a week's testing on the simply brutal track. The idea was to try out some new things on the bike, adapt the bike to the track and get everyone up to speed and feeling comfy on their rock and hole strewn lines, with the week culminating in the British National race.
The weather in Britain is always something to contend with, but the team soldiered through the drizzle and midges to put in lap after lap while we tweaked away. Many other teams and racers had the same idea, and so the start list for the National was nothing short of a mini World Cup. Despite the stacked field, a track that was blown to pieces and even some pre-race practice crashes, the team did a stellar job with some great results that did a fine balance of bringing satisfaction to build confidence while stoking the fire just enough for the bigger show, a short fortnight after.
Rolling back into the Nevis Range after what then seemed like a blink of an eye, the atmosphere was immediately different. Nothing compares to a World Cup and Fort William is renowned for the fans. All week long they were out in numbers that rivaled the midges, bringing an energy to the pits and track that had even the practice sessions lining the track with fans, waiting to sneak a peek at their favorite riders in real life.
Now it’s no secret that DH is our first love at RAAW, and as we were developing the DH bike and dabbling with the idea of going racing, the dream of one day seeing a RAAW on the live stream got nervously mentioned. We were so early on in the DH project that we filed it under things that might never happen and carried on developing the bike. Dreams are good. Sometimes they’re a guiding light that piece by piece, step by step can be made more real and more attainable. Little did we know what would lie in wait.
The week also had a different vibe for the team. Everyone exuded a feeling of being well prepared and just got on with the job of going hell for leather so well. After just the first practice run the speeds were seriously high, with the bike just blending away underneath the riders as they just focussed on hitting their lines, and learning the new sections of track.
When you’re not a protected rider, qualification is essentially a proper race run. It’s your first box to tick to get into the big show. And with so few slots available, it’s now something as impressive as ever to just qualify. Douglas was on fire for his run, sitting well inside the top 10 as he came into the Motorway section at the end of the track, only to then have his run cut short by a red flag.
We calmed him down and bundled him back in the lift to go through it all again. He’d given it his everything and was knackered. But he got his head down on the trainer again, re-focussed and we were back at the windy start line. Impressively he hit his re-run even harder, attacking sections as hard as he’s ever done and going even quicker in places than his first run. But luck is something you have no control of, and a puncture struck mid-way down which sapped so much needed speed on the second half of the track and meant that when it was all finished, he was a meesely two seconds off qualifying. Still young, with many more chances in front of him, he took it on the chin better than I’ve ever seen him do. Visibly gutted of course, he knew that for everything he could control, he gave his absolute best at that a simple puncture was the thing that stood in his way. Next time mate, I’ve no doubt that with the same effort, energy, focus and process you’ll be right up there with the fastest.
Bad luck is a funny one, as it can strike in the most unexpected places, as KJ found out. She was bouncing around the pits all through practice with huge excitement as she linked the sections of track together, riding closer to how she knows she can. Only to roll her ankle over in a post-practice track walk. It swelled up to double its normal size and went all colors of the rainbow. Sadly it couldn’t take any weight and put trying to qualify out of the equation. But still as bubbly as ever, we affectionately named her hop along for the rest of the weekend and she remained enthusiastic and helped out with keeping spirits high in the team.
For Ryan, there was perhaps the most pressure out of the whole team. He’s Scottish, so this is really a home race, with the big flags bearing his name attesting to. And it was his first Elite World Cup, as he’d missed Lourdes through injury. For such a young lad, he’s got a head on him wise beyond his years. Come qualification, he wasn’t particularly nervous, just ready to go and complete that final part of the process. And complete it he did, sliding into 43rd position and getting into the final on Sunday. People fight long and hard for years to qualify at one of these things, and Ryan went and did it at his first try.
A bit more familiar to how it all works, Luke just cracked on from day one. While he can cover a caravan in clothes faster than a bomb going off, he’s somewhat an astute study of downhill. The fact that the others will always ask him his opinion on lines shows this and he was up the mountain more than anyone, studying the course. Come qualification he was just quietly ready to go, using his long warm up routine to get his body and head ready to explode from the relative tranquility of the start hut into the wildness below. We nervously watched the live timing for not only Luke’s run, but where it would stack up against the rest. Eyes wide and jaws on the floor, Luke qualified 16th.
And just like that, our shy little dream had just come true. There would be a RAAW on the live stream at a World Cup. We’ve never exchanged so many excited messages between ourselves at RAAW that didn’t make sense. We couldn’t quite believe what had just happened.
So with both Elite lads in the final, we set about re-focussing ourselves on the big show. It’s a fine balance between breathing a sigh of relief that you’ve qualified and enjoying the moment, while making sure you’re focussed and ready to go for it all again, with even more aggression, one short day later.
Sunday’s weather was wild. The rain and wind had picked up and with all the practice sessions and races prior to the Elites the track was getting pretty churned up, especially in the newer sections that were softer than the bedrock that lines a lot of the track. Ryan lined up in the start gate, as calmly focussed as ever, well at least on the outside. He put on a cracking performance to finish 51st. We’re immensely proud of you Ryan and what you achieved at your first crack at an Elite World Cup. One hell of a solid stepping stone to now stand on to only go to higher things.
By the time the top 30 were coming down, the finish area was beyond rammed. Someone described it like a rock concert. And the noise level was similar too. No matter the rider, the crowd was ear splittingly loud. But when a UK rider came down, the earth began to shake. So when Luke popped on the big screen in the start hut, the crowd erupted. And just like the weather, his run was wild, visibly giving it all he had navigating the treacherous track. He later, deadpan, told us “Could you tell I was pushing?”. Yeah mate, just a bit. He rode the hind legs off the bike and finished in an eye wateringly high 23rd place.
We’ve probably watched the replay of Luke’s run about a hundred times now, still with an air of did that just happen. We grew up obsessed with DH racing, reading the stories in Dirt and on the edges of the sofa as we watched the live streams from all over the World. And there we had it, our humble little DH bike on the screen, whizzing past all the cheering fans on the Fort William track, with perhaps the biggest fans of all throwing our arms in the air and screaming until we had no voice.
Fort William was a dream come true. And as we still try to digest it, it’s secretly fired us up more than ever for the next round in the Austrian Alps, as we now know that we have the team, the bike and the desire to be right up there with the best in the world. Long live DH racing.
Photos: Ross Bell