So, the world cup comes to Scotland! Not football, thank goodness
but downhill and 4 Cross mountain biking.
Scotland in June is always a lottery - the beautiful weather experienced
in mid May had turned to a week of full on rain. Not just any old
rain but stair rod, hammering down, torrential rain. My first thoughts
leaving a sunny Dundee at five in the morning on Saturday was "how
much of the track would be washed away" and "would spectators" turn
up. These thoughts further preyed on my mind as 20 miles down the
road the rain had returned and stayed all the way along to the shores
of Loch Laggan.
Then, remarkably, some breaks in the clouds appeared - things were
looking up! I shouldn't have worried about spectators being scared
away by the weather either, thousands turned out, lining the courses
shouting encouragement and blasting air-horns. Accompanying this
enthusiastic soundtrack, "The Extreme Team" a troop of drummers,
firebreathers and general carnival loons kept the crowds entertained
and the sound level up. All great stuff for the atmosphere of the
event but how "The Extreme Team" kept going I don't know!
Downhill mountain biking is much like its skiing equivalent - the
person who bombs down the course in the fastest time is the winner.
The difference though is that the course tends to be rocky, rutted,
muddy and have big jumps. To help the riders through the terrain
at speeds up to 40-50 mph in places, the bikes are far removed from
your standard pushbike, or mountain bike for that matter - suspension
giving eight inches travel front and rear is the norm, as is using
tyres specific to the course. Most tyres are made of "sticky" rubber
to give the best grip on slick rocks - the downside of this extreme
grip is that some compounds last only three runs of a course before
they start to break up - five or six miles then they're replaced!
Walking down the hillside watching the DH practice the track appeared
to be a wicked mixture of rocks drops, mud (lots of it in places!),
followed by an amazing rollercoaster ride on a hard packed track
featuring huge jumps and an extremely steep drop to the finish arena.
The course was technical and exhausting at the top followed by a
speed-freak's finish, average speeds around the 20mph mark may not
sound much but some of the sections have the riders on their brakes,
riding at walking pace just to get through particularly awful sections.
4 Cross racing
4X is the newest discipline on the mountain bike circuit, making
its inaugural showing at Fort William. Here the course is totally
man made - huge jumps to safely negotiate, massive "berms" to slingshot
the riders down the track and, most importantly of all four racers
on the track all vying for the fastest line - like a BMX track on
steroids taking 20-25 seconds of full on sprinting to complete.
Late Saturday afternoon the 4X action started with seeding runs
to decide who would be in which heats. To decide the start places
riders were timed on a solo run down the track. These seeding runs
came after a practice session and unfortunately spoiled the flow
of the event. Perhaps in future it would be best to have the seeding
runs the day before and have a minimal practice session before the
As it was the large crowd were kept waiting as the weather changed
from fantastically sunny (honestly) to overcast as the hours past
- with the threat of rain. Despite this delay, once the action started
it was thrilling. Four riders going hell for leather, flying through
the air and occasionally spilling to the ground was great entertainment.
In each heat the fastest two would go through. As would be expected
with a new event there were a few dubious calls on rules. Britain's
BSX start, Martin Ogden in particular seemed unlucky to be disqualified
after an alleged technical infringement.
The women's final had most of the expected faces in it - multiple
World Champion downhiller Anne-Caroline Chausson (FRA), Tara Llanes
(USA), Celine Gros (FRA) and Sabrina Jonnier (FRA). Australia's
Katrina Miller was unfortunate not to make it into the final - she
certainly deserved it - along with Chausson and Llanes, she was
the only woman to be able to clear all the jumps.
In a previous heat Llanes actually beat Chausson, so the final
was particularly thrilling - Llanes and Chausson being the two fastest
in this company. Out of the gate and round the first berm Llanes
and Chausson were neck to neck. Chausson edged across towards Llanes
and perhaps unsettled her because over the first big jump Llanes
had a massive crash and lay on the deck for a number of minutes
before being able to get up and hobble off the track. The crash
didn't stop the racing however and Chausson took the victory ahead
of Jonnier then Gross.
The men's final was to be no less exciting. This time the UK had
a rider ready to take gold. None other than Steve Peat, the No.1
UK downhiller and second in the world, was ready to do battle with
Brian Lopes (USA), Wade Bootes (AUS) and Cedric Gracia (FRA). The
favourite in this encounter had to be Lopes, he has made the dual
rider style of racing his own in recent years and the addition of
two more player on the track would surely mean two more people behind
Racing can throw up all sorts of surprises - Lopes was edged off
the track after the second berm - race over for him. Wade Bootes
the other short course multi rider specialist looked to be taking
the main prize home but Gracia had other ideas and in a move of
sheer brilliance the flamboyant Frenchman accelerated hard towards
the last jump, flying through the air to land in front of Bootes.
A further sprint to the line and the line up was Gracia first, Bootes
second and Peat third. That should have been the end of the story
but Lopes was promoted to third spot after it turned out Peat had
inadvertently cut one of the course markers.
So a fun first day of racing, the rain held off for the most part,
the atmosphere was fantastic, electric even during the 4X finals
and another days racing to go! The only major downside being the
mud underfoot…Glastonbury on a hillside as someone put it!