Fort William World Championships Recap
The drive over the Glencoe Pass in Scotland is a special one. All of a sudden you feel very small as you meander the rental van through the ominous and towering mountains on either side, keeping an eye out for deer and trying not to ditch the van down the bank as you come face to face with enormous oncoming lorries. Despite all those things that make you grab the steering wheel a little tighter, it’s one of the nicest drives to a race venue. That venue is Fort William.
It's been a stop on the World Cup for the past twenty years. Since the beginning, it’s been synonymous with breaking bikes, people and spirits. It’s a tough land the highlands. One minute you can be having your socks blown off by the stunning sunny views that are akin to something out of Lord of the Rings. The next you can be actually having your socks blown off with gale-force winds and horizontal rain stinging at your face. And while it’s good to keep an eye on the weather forecast to see how many outfits to pack for the day, you also need to check the midge forecast to see how eaten alive you might be getting.
The race track Fort William is a rough one that batters bikes and its length makes it fatiguing for even the strongest of racers. And every year, mid-way down, the course takes a different route through the woods and challenges riders with an abrupt change in pace and style of track.
This year, however, the whole track had a different style to it. While it followed the same route as years past, the trail crew had spent sixteen weeks having dirt and gravel shipped in to fill in holes and build up the corners. They also had more time to whacker plate everything, meaning that some sections were literally like concrete, but would hold up better to the ensuing abuse.
This surprising increase in smoothness meant that first run, racers were already going flat out. The supportive turns allowed them to carry new levels of speed into the still-rough sections in between. For the racers with well set up bikes and bucket loads of commitment, it meant that they skimmed smoothly across the top of all the rocks, body hardly moving. But when it all got a bit out of shape it was easy to see that Fort William hadn’t lost any of its preciseness. One wrong move and it could have you full speed pinballing out of control.
For Stacey, the track, conditions, and midges were already familiar to her. Being British, she’d raced up at the Fort quite a few times. But for Nuno, it was his first time here. So he had to quickly learn the track, get up to speed and fettle the bike as efficiently as possible. But coming from home tracks that are loose and sketchy, the man from Portugal didn’t even flinch.
We also had Nathan Kitchen of the US aboard a Yalla!. Just two weeks prior he’d taken delivery of his frame and he was out in Scotland flying the flag for the USA. A welcome surprise that meant we had three RAAWs at the World Championships.
Practice day had Stacey and Nuno filled with positivity. Not your average first-day response in Fort William. The track was riding like a dream, the grip was incredible, the bikes were working well, and they were just out having fun. All too easily Fort William can suck the fun out of riding when the weather turns and you’re sick of hitting the same rock over and over again.
Both Stacey and Nuno quickly found a bike setup that had traction, support, and balance. Stacey uses a different lower shock mount to adjust the BB height with her smaller rear wheel, while Nuno prefers the higher progression setting, along with a full twenty niner setup, for some added suppleness and support on the repeatedly brutal rocks. He’d also settled back in the mid position on the chain stay after testing out the shorter position and finding that the speeds and roughness of the World Cup tracks favoured a longer bike.
As is always the case, qualification quickly came around, as it’s not only the World Cup series that had seen some organisational changes. Gone is the extra day of practice and the World Championship schedule is now similar to a World Cup, just that a bigger proportion of the racers qualify for the finals.
Throughout practice, the rain had held off and some sections up top were starting to really dry out and get properly loose. But over the night into qualifying day, there was a good dose of rain that actually makes the Fort William track ride better. The rain holds the loose gravel together and washes off any mud carried onto the plethora of rocks from the boggy holes that were developing. And luckily the rain hadn‘t affected the middle woods, and racers could stick to the same line and hit it with speed and commitment.
Stacey’s qualification run was first, and once she’d crossed the line, more and more riders slotted in behind her. Once everyone was done, she’d finished in 8th, so it was a surprise to hear that she’d had a pretty steady run and hadn’t gone all out just yet. Maybe we need to do some digging into her family tree; given how well she goes at the World Championships, there must be a bit of French in her somewhere.
Nuno was up next and had a good run with no major mistakes. I for one couldn’t do the speed he does after only my eight runs on a brand-new track. But Fort William is a track that might favour experience. Despite that, he qualified for the final and even dipped inside the top 40 on some of his splits.
Maybe a few of us had been naively lulled into the idea that we might dodge the weather and have a dry, for Scotland, race, given our luck during the week so far. But anyone following the weather forecast saw that there might be some serious rain on the cards for race day.
Practice runs that morning went well, with both Stacey and Nuno trying out some final adjustments. Stacey had gone up a little in pressure in both the fork and shock to cope with the growing size of the holes and the increased speed that comes with more runs and maybe the pressure of that one run takes all. Nuno tried out a lower front end, with the idea that it might help out the front-end grip. But after one run, he quickly felt that the change put him too far over the front on the steeper and rockier pitches of the track. Sometimes you need to see where the extremes are, and a final run back at the same front-end height confirmed that he was good to go.
At the top, while warming up, it seemed that Gareth, Stacey’s partner, was more nervous than she was. Maybe she was beneath the cool and calm exterior, but she never let it show and went about her pre-race routine without any drama or hiccups.
The comradery between racers in downhill is humbling. All competing for the same thing, everyone wishes each other good luck as you make your way to the eye-shaped start hut high up on Aonach Mòr. I don’t think racers lining up on an F1 grid go around and wish their competitors good luck.
It was a quiet time as Stacey lined up and waited for the beeps before exploding out onto the Scottish moor. With it being so open, you can see racers all the way into the start of the second split. After that, it’s hoping you catch a patch of phone reception and you follow the live timing.
But once the second split popped up, which is actually most of the roughest part of the track, we could see that she’d had a problem. Catching up with her at the bottom, she described a huge crash that had given her body some good whacks. A second, smaller, crash in the woods also happened, but the first one was really starting to kick in as the adrenaline wore off.
The medics attended to her and decided to whisk her off to get checked over. It was clear to see that she was in some pain and walking was tricky.
A few short hours later, Nuno was lining up to drop in. Accounts from people at the top say that they could see the rainstorm coming directly at them. And down at the bottom of the hill, it had already started to pour down. While it might not deter the fans, who still continued to scream for each and every rider as their shoes filled up with water, the sheer amount of rain on track now meant that visibility was tricky and the woods had morphed into something akin to grease.
While quiet off the bike, Nuno definitely lets his riding do the talking. And despite the conditions and crossing the line looking like a drowned rat, he kept it upright and had a solid run. Just one that simply succumbed to the wild weather and having not practised in conditions like that. I’m not sure I’d want to practise in torrential rain all week, though. Nuno finished his World Champs in 53rd place.
While the simply wild happenings from the previous year’s World Championships in Les Gets are still fresh in our minds, watching a Brit win on home soil in the most challenging conditions was another experience that I’ll cherish for a long time to come. Les Gets might have been nearly set on fire with the after party, and while it would be tricky to set a town that damp on fire, Fort William always provides the most dedicated of fans and World Champs is always a special week of racing.
It's still a bit hard to believe that this is only our second year of taking the Yalla! racing, and we’re immensely proud of Nuno, Stacey, and Nate, for not only being selected for their respective nations but to have flown the RAAW flag so speedily all week. Nuno even snuck onto the Vital Raw and made some of the newest DH bike prototypes look like unsettled ponies with his solid, stable and immensely fast rider and bike setup.
One good thing about mid-season World Champs is that there’s plenty of racing still to come. And we’re as excited to get into the next block of World Cups as a kid on Christmas day waiting to open their presents.
Photos: Ross Bell (Instagram: @rossbellphoto)