Supporting the Crank Cycles/Kona Grassroots team exploco blogger Sam Bowell gets himself up to the second round of the British Downhill Series – the epic Fort William MTB Race.
Upfront is Thomas, a young talent taking the knocks and getting a taste of the top – with Sam getting in a blast ahead of the race, pro riders hanging off his wheel…
And so it was that at 6:30 last Thursday morning, I found myself loading up the Crank Cycles/Kona Grassroots team bus (or the Davies family’s Renault Espace if I’m being totally honest) ready for the long trip to Fort William for the 2nd round of the British Downhill Series.
My role for the weekend was sadly not as a competitor, but instead as spanner monkey/coach/life guru/peace keeper; with my bike at the ready as an emergency donor if the worst happened. Luckily (and thanks to some careful planning) our arrival on Thursday evening would still allow me a small window of opportunity to hit the world renowned rocky slopes of Fort Bill on the Friday, before the course was closed to non-competitors.
Our digs for the weekend were the absolutely ideal Lochaber Lodges. A canal-side situation with a spectacular view of the Nevis Range, (when the clouds played ball) and only 15mins away from the gondola, meant that we were forced to share our home-from-home with some other filthy ped-heads; namely Santa-Cruz Syndicate big-wigs Josh ‘Ratboy’ Bryceland, current World Champ Greg Minaar, and the legend that is Steve Peat.
With the first round of the UCI World Cup (also being held at Fort William) just around the corner, the pro elite field was bursting with talent trying to get vital practice hours in before the main event.
Now, the setting itself is pretty epic; dump some of the UK’s finest riders in it and the atmosphere electrifies; but when you know that you’ve got some of the world’s finest hounding you down Bill’s gnarled backside…well it’s a bit like a Ridley Scott directed episode of Eastenders: Terrifying; exhilarating; disturbing; emotional; frankly it’s sublime!
Friday came and went. Sun turned to sleet and mist, and I learned very quickly why the Fort is considered to be one of the most gruelling courses on the planet.
Over 2.5km’s of rock infested helter-skelter, and a death-grip inducing bottom third, combine to form one of the most intense workouts you will ever undertake. Then, just as the pain in your hands and feet starts to fade, you realise that you’re already half way to the top again, sat in a gondola you only faintly remember queuing up for. It’s just too easy!
A forecast of snow and high winds meant seeding runs were pushed forwards to Saturday afternoon, with race runs beginning midday Sunday. Things were getting serious now, and more than a little daunting for our small team of Mum Mary, Dad Kev and young racer Thomas.
A brutal combination of unpredictable weather and unforgiving terrain picked off wheels and riders without mercy or discrimination, so when Thomas (and his bike) came through the finish line in one piece we all breathed a little easier.
A couple of offs had slightly shaken his nerves and bruised both pride and body, but served as a tough reminder of where we were and why we were there.
Sunday means race day, and for once the weather seemed to be behaving. Just.
Words of encouragement and some light track reviews courtesy of the previous days’ helmet cam footage, plus some minor tweeks to his bike’s setup, had again boosted Thomas’ confidence and made him all the more determined to post a good time.
It was a long ride up to the top of the course. Trying to remain positive, relaxed and focussed at the same time was far from easy, and I wasn’t even racing!
Some choice words and last-minute warm-ups left only a few short minutes before ‘the beeps’. That was my cue to re-board the gondola and to try and get to the finish line before Thomas.
His start time of 11:08 passed as I was sat in a stationary glass box two-thirds of the way down, rocking partly from nerves, partly from the wind.
But 4 minutes later and I was stood at the finish gate with an extremely nervous Mary. We watched expectantly as names popped up on the screen in-front of us. Then it came: a simultaneous call over the tannoy and display on the screen, “Thomas Davies of Crank Cycles and Kona Grassroots is up at the split”. The next thing we knew he was clearing the 4X jump and onto the last straight!
His finishing time was his fastest of the weekend and put him in the hot-seat for a good few minutes, but most importantly gave him the biggest smile I have seen in a long while.
From that point onwards final standings meant very little. Thomas got knocked from the top spot eventually, and finally we could all relax and enjoy the rest of the days racing, cheering on friends and unknowns alike.
Of course it snowed shortly after racing finished, and then we had the 12-hour-long drive home to contend with, before jumping straight back into work/school the next day.
Since then there have been 14 hour long work days; post-race bike overhauls; brief (and terrifying) forays into the world of cyclocross; summer road-trip planning gatherings; training sessions being planned out; and a little more light DH for good measure.
I’ve seen torrential rain, blistering (well sort of…nearly) heat, gale force winds, snow and everything in-between. All of this within the last 10 days, and all in the UK.
I’m so tired I could actually fall asleep behind my tinted goggles, and I’m so emotionally drained that even the thought of Bambi brings a tear to my eye.
I’d do it again though. In fact I can’t wait TO do it again!
Thomas and Sam are part of the Crank Cycles/Kona Grassroots team and ride Kona Operators