While half the Wideopenmag lot were in France tackling the Megavalanche, Pete and Rosie headed north for the Lowepro Endurance Downhill.
Photos by Charles Robertson.
If riding the World Cup downhill track at Fort William once is daunting enough a prospect for you, then perhaps the Endurance Downhill isn’t for you.
Riders have to Le Mans start, ride from the cafe to the Silverline wallride, then have 6 hours to hammer out as many runs as possible. This year’s event was cut short due to some 52mph cross winds, but it still left plenty of racing to be done.
Catch our riders’ versions of events below:
The Lowepro Endurance Downhill returned after a 5 year hiatus and boy it’s easy to forget how much punishment the body can take. My previous outing in 2012 saw me collect 13 runs and some calf muscles that felt like somebody had tied a half blood knot in. I was keen to match or better that, knowing that despite my fitness not being what it was, my bike handling had gone through the roof.
We arrived early to get some sighting and break pad bedding in (I’d only taken delivery of my Vitus Dominer the Wednesday before the race) runs before hauling our spares into the pit area and nervously awaiting the start. From my 4 previous attempts, I knew this race was more about digging deep on the climb and settling into a rhythm, taking advantage of any small time gains.
With that in mind I wrung my neck on the climb off the start. Small block downhill cassettes make fireroad climbs unpleasant but I had the bit between my teeth. As the road steepened before the drop in at the wall ride I chewed my stem to get past those who had opted to push and saw the man to beat, Alastair MacLennan, just a few bike lengths out front. Job half done.
From my second sighting lap, I knew the bike felt good beneath me, and started plugging away laps with the minimum of stops. 2 laps before any refuel saw me snatch 6 runs within 2 hours, despite the gondola slowing for the wind.
As the wind began to howl, I felt bizarrely strong despite my concentration starting to wander. A few minor off-track incidents and one wee lie down were all I had to show for 8 runs in. A red flag before the motorway saw my consistent sub-7 minute runs slip to over 9, and a flat on run 8 saw me lose the chance to bag my 10th and my best ever downhill finish.
I couldn’t have been happier though. Rarely do I get comfy on a bike enough to ride hard from the get-go, but the Dominer made my life easy until I had accrued beyond 15,000 feet of vertical descent in just over four hours. My fastest run of the day was less than half a minute off my best ever run time at Fort William. 16th place, and at the sharp end of the 9-lappers. Job done.
Tired and battered I may be, but I’ll be back soon to go under 6 minutes.
Having also raced this monster of an event a couple of times before, I at least knew the horrors I was letting myself in for. Being much fitter and generally better able to pilot a bicycle this time around I felt as well prepared as it’s really possible to be for an event requiring such unimaginable levels of lunacy.
I’d also been lucky enough to have the loan of a minty green Juliana Strega shredding machine. The 7 inches of travel and gravity-orientated set up would at least go some way to lessening the strain on my noodly arms and legs.
The race this year was divided into Enduro Bike and Downhill Bike categories, levelling the playing field a little and no doubt attracting a few more contenders. It also meant that you could race meaningfully against people on similar bikes, rather than relying on my usual go-to excuse of “but I’m not on a downhill bike”.
Lining up for the Le Mans style running mass start, it was great to bump into old faces and find some comfort in the fact that plenty of other people are also stupid enough to spent a Saturday clinging to their bikes in terror.
The initial climb for me was more of a struggle than I’d hoped. The Strega climbs incredibly well, but I should have warmed the legs up rather than chatting rubbish in the pits. My calves screamed at me as people on much bigger bikes sailed past easily.
Tipping the bike into the race course proper was where the fun really started; I’d gone steady in practice having finally learned that crashing is much more costly that not doing! The top half of the track for me is really about survival.
There really is nowhere to hide and seemingly every rock on the mountain is out to ruin your day with a puncture and a pringled wheel, or worse. The Santa Cruz Reserve wheels on the Strega put up a valiant battle against the savage Fort William boulders and ruined my 100% puncture record for the course!
The lower part of the course is where I was able to relax and start to enjoy myself. There’s still plenty to catch you out, with the added embarrassment factor of more spectators too. After the third lap I really started to let the bike run and picked up the pace, feeling confident and really starting to enjoy myself.
I was thrilled to find myself realising, mid-race, that although it was physically punishing and mentally draining, I was still alive! I also wasn’t death gripping the bars in blind terror and was even, dare I say it, going pretty bloody fast!
The wind really took hold after my sixth lap and meant that I was either fighting to keep the wheels from being blown out beneath me, or trying in vain to keep my jersey from being flapped into my face. I was feeling pretty battered and there wasn’t much left in my twig arms so I was pretty delighted when race organiser Fraser shouted through the gondola window that this would be my last uplift.
Having completely lost track of time and any grasp on reality I was pleasantly surprised to receive my timing receipt telling me I’d managed nine runs. I was even more delighted to realise that I’d done them faster than any other women on single crown bikes and just a wee bit slower than the mighty Fiona Beattie on her downhill bike meaning I took the win in my race category, 29th overall.