Ric Laughlin heads to Fort William for nights under canvas and days on a hillside in anticipation of the 2007 Mountain Biking World Championships
You’re tired and you’re sore. Nights on the vodka still don’t mix with nights on the air mattress. Sunlight splits the trees as the smells of pine forest, fresh earth and your own Red Bull–tinged breath fill your nostrils. It’s daft o’clock in the morning and you’ve just scrambled halfway up a hillside with a hangover. Your mind is elsewhere.
Sam Hill, on the other hand, feels fresh and is concentrating hard. Hill is 21, Australian, enjoys chess and golf and, mostly, he keeps himself to himself. He is also one of the top mountain bikers in the world.
Hill blips past you at around 40 miles an hour on a bike. His thoughts have now turned to the rapidly approaching right hand kink over some roots. His back wheel steps out briefly, flicking mud and moss over some nearby spectators. Both wheels drift sideways momentarily before the whole bike grips underneath him and propels him out of view. Everyone makes that involuntary concert/goal noise – ‘come on!’ – condensed into two very loud, lairy syllables. It’s accompanied by whistles, gongs, air horns and a man in lycra playing an old bike frame with a stick.
Hill doesn’t hear any of this. He’s got a further couple of minutes of drops, turns, jumps and trees to traverse at similar speeds before he can stop concentrating. The crowd keeps cheering, eagerly awaiting the next rider down, hangovers and last night’s beer fear all but forgotten.
Mountain bike races are strange beasts. The crowd is made up of fans from all over the world, all just happy to be there, perched on a hill chatting with their mates and watching the world’s fastest riders. It’s a nice environment; laid-back and welcoming without the disaffectedness common at many music festivals today. There’s a relaxed atmosphere more akin to a house party than a rave. As a sport, mountain biking is growing at a phenomenal rate; the various fixtures are attracting more and more advertising revenue, while the riders score bigger and bigger pay cheques. That said, it’s still one of those rare sports with no pretensions to exclusivity; the sort of event that seems to invite you in, hand you a beer and ask you what sort of music you’re into.
The jewel in the mountain biking calendar is the UCI World Championships; one week of races to settle all the scores from throughout the season, with the winner picking up the coveted rainbow-trimmed white jersey for next year.
Hosting this event is a huge honour for any country, and this year, the honour has fallen to Scotland. This loudest celebration of all things two-wheeled will take place from Monday 3 to Sunday 9 September in Fort William, which has already hosted eight annual mountain biking World
Cups, but never the main event.
For most spectators the downhill finals are the big draw, and the highlight of the event on Sunday. The Four-Cross (4X) events, which pit four riders at a time in a race to the flag over what really resembles a mutated BMX track, are also popular, with the finals taking place on Friday night.
If all that velocity gets a bit much for you, the World Cup Village, a warren of tents and arenas covering the whole of Ben Nevis’ capacious car park, is open to all comers, with food tents, opportunities for star spotting and the chance to pimp your own ride out with biking goodies at the Expo. The organisers put on various evening entertainments in Fort William itself too and, if you’re itching to try out the moves you’ve witnessed the professionals do on the courses, there’s a demo track where you can get your hands on some top of the line kit and hoon about to your heart’s content. There’s nothing quite like a sharp blast of noise, action and fresh air for shocking you out of that post-festivals torpor, so look out your wellies, pack your air horn and get yourself up north.
The Fort William UCI Mountain Bike and Trials World Championships run from Mon 3–Sun 9 September. Prices start at £10 for an adult day ticket, or £55 for an adult pass valid for the entire event. See www.fortwilliamworldchamps.co.uk for a complete programme of events, together with information on accommodation and transport.