It's all downhill from here
Richard and Sam Croasdale meet some old beery friends among the mud and drama of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup
Saturday 27 August 2022
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A biting wind whips around the gondola station half-way up the approach to Aonach Mòr, part of the Nevis mountain range, just outside of Fort William. We’re only 650 meters up from the party that’s kicking off back at the base of the hill, but it still feels exposed and treacherous, even on foot; a couple of hours into the weekend’s action and the mud is already churned to a froth, while the steady Highland rain has washed the rocks clean and slick. It’s slow going for me, but all part of the challenge for the mountain bikers hurling themselves down the trail, competing for the top spots in this leg of UCI’s Mountain Bike World Cup.
The weekend-long event is one of the highlights of the UK’s mountain biking calendar, particularly for ‘downhillers’, those riders who live for the high-speed thrills of descending steep and technically challenging routes in the fastest possible time. There are junior categories and more niche formats, with the Sunday culminating in the men’s and women’s downhill elite competitions.
A degree of fearlessness is obviously called for, but what really sets these riders apart is sheer skill. Clearly earned through many thousands of hours on the trail – honed by cuts, bruises and broken bones – the fluid grace of their movement stands stark against the dirt, rocks and clattering cowbells of their supporters lining the trail. They’ve mastered their environment; their bikes are an extension of the riders’ muscle memory, with every micro-slip instantly matched by a corrective twitch to bring back the line. Drop back an inch over the saddle, shift the weight with knee bent out of the turn and carry that precious momentum into the next obstacle, maintaining a perfect locus as wheels bounce, pull and twist savagely below.
There are accidents, of course, and a number of ambulances shuttling to the hospital throughout the day. I watch, nauseous, as a junior rider not much older than my son Sam (who is with me) catches her front wheel in a rocky trough that tears the handlebars from her hands, sending her flying a terrifying distance, sans bike, to land behind a small outcrop. Stewards and first aiders run to help, and the small nearby crowd waits breathless – far, far too long – before a small arm eventually appears, thumb raised in defiant reassurance. A cheer goes up.
The very best riders complete this long and gruelling descent in around four minutes, but it takes me and Sam about an hour and a half to haltingly pick our way down the mountain. As we cross into the tree-line around 300 meters up, the wind drops and the crowds grow. In my experience, mountain biking crowds are unfailingly good people – welcoming, passionate and evangelical about the thing they love – which is possibly why there’s such a cross-over with craft beer fandom.
Down here among the pines, the spectator areas are a mud bath, and to stand still for too long means risking losing a shoe. It’s also the best chance to get up-close with the riders though, so the tightest corners and most spectacular jumps are often three-deep with bobble-hatted fans clanging cowbells and trying to get the perfect photo in the mire.
The final few hundred meters of the course comprises a straight run of truly spectacular jumps, where riders become fully airborne and reach extraordinary speeds, before arriving to cheers in the middle of the World Cup Village. Particularly for those whose ride has been derailed by some mistake or misfortune higher up the mountain (and who therefor have nothing to lose) this is also an opportunity to razz up the crowd with some aerial acrobatics, or ‘whipping’ as it’s known. It’s not going to improve your time, but a gravity-defying handstand on the bars of a bike in mid-air will certainly win you a lot of love, which is a great consolation prize.
Centred around the riders’ enclosure at the end of the trail, the World Cup Village throngs with activity. While hanging out on the mountain itself gets you close to the action, it’s tricky to know who exactly you’re watching, or get a sense of the overall competition. Fans at the base of the hill get to watch the drama unfold, as their heroes battle it out for precious seconds, and years-long rivalries play out in real time.
Above all though, the sense is of a community converging for one glorious party. We stand in the pouring rain before the giant screen, with beer, burgers and energy drinks, fans mingling with mud-spattered riders cheering on their peers. Among the stalls selling team merchandise, apparel and even top-end bikes, are a couple of familiar faces: Dave and Louise Grant from Aberdeen’s Fierce beer leapt at the chance to be this year’s official beer partner, and have their own (extremely popular) Fierce bar, slinging pints in the melee.
“We thought with the weather being so poor that it would be a bit of a washout, but it’s absolutely rammed,” says a grinning Dave. “There are so many people who came yesterday, got soaked, and then we’re seeing them back today. We’ve been totally blown away with the whole thing; to be so close to the riders as they came down the hill at the end and the speeds these guys get up to for the jumps… it's just insane.”
As part of its involvement with the event, Fierce brought Mountain Goat lager to the thirsty crowds, a beery tribute to South African down-hiller Greg Minaar, one of the greatest riders of all time. Considering the standard of beer usually found at sporting events, it was great to see the familiar Fierce logo in so many hands around the village; even simply as a marketing exercise, Dave says it was a huge success.
“We had so many people saying they loved the beer and had never had it before, which always feels great. Then we had our branding out on the trail, and behind the winners’ podium. We even had Greg himself very kindly drop in and sign some autographs at the Fierce bar, which was brilliant. We’re trying hard to get more involved with UCI so we can do more of these events in future – it’s been so much fun.”
In terms of the proximity to the action, the atmosphere of the crowd and – of course – the quality of the beer the Fort William Mountain Bike World cup was hands-down the most enjoyable sporting event I’ve ever been to. Sam and I leave, replete with mud and merch, vowing to return in 2023.
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