The opening round of the 2022 4X Pro Tour kept the fans entertained as downhill qualifying wrapped up on Saturday night in Fort William.
Dave Thanes was our man on the ground as the 2022 4X Pro Tour kicked off in a drizzly Fort William.
Words and photos by Dave Thanes.
It’s felt like a long time coming. Three years after the last Pro Tour race here (and celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first race here), we finally headed up to Fort William for the start of the 2022 4X Pro Tour series.
The track is much the same as it was in 2019, big and rough, with the added bonus of some inclement weather. Did no-one tell Scotland it’s almost June?
4X has been one of the main holdouts of 26” wheeled hardtails for some years now (for that snap and acceleration out of the gate), but a track like Fort Bill really opens the door to some other options as evidenced by the range of bikes in use. The preferred choice was a short travel full suspension bike, but there were riders on enduro and even full on downhill rigs. They may be slower out of the gate, but once they’ve built up some momentum they’re absolutely flying down the hill and over the rough stuff.
Prior to racing the rumour mill was in full swing with talk of an old favourite coming out of 4X retirement (anyone remember Dan Atherton?) to put on a show. Unfortunately once the start list was published, this was shown to be unfounded, but there were still many A-list and fan favourite stars hunting their chance for a winner’s medal.
Qualifying took place on Friday evening, with Swiss rider Noel Niederberger taking a slightly surprising pole position by just 0.13s ahead of current World Champion, Tomas Slavik, in second, with his namesake (no relation) Hannes Slavik in Third. Jono Jones of 2021 Hardline fame decided to race 4X for the first time in a decade, and took the mantel as the top British rider with fourth.
In the women’s, Czech rider and current world champ Michaela Hajkova qualified first by 0.5s from Austria’s Helene Fruhwirth, with British riders taking all of the remaining qualifying places with the top twelve riders making it through to finals. Josie McFall was third with Sophie Cade in fourth.
Fast forwarding to Saturday, and the start of practice was slightly delayed as the downhill qualifying had overrun. Both race tracks use the same final straight and finish area, and a few crashes on the big hill had led to some re-runs so things were about half an hour behind schedule. Once practice opened, there was a crash fairly early on which caused another delay as the medics tended to the fallen rider, so racing started about an hour later than scheduled.
The delay had allowed the crowd to build up nicely as people headed down from the downhill and made their way over, and as always they were in good voice and provided a great atmosphere despite the rain.
The riders huddled behind the start gate, trying to keep warm as the final checks were made, and then it launched straight into the men’s round of 32. Full Gas. The top two riders in each race progress, bottom two riders are out, nice and simple. Apart from Gareth Northam who didn’t make it to the start gate, the only rider that didn’t match their qualifying potential was James Lahmawn, who had qualified in 11th but didn’t make it through to the last 16.
The women’s quarter finals were a combination of two and three women races, as they whittled the now eleven (1 DNS) qualifiers down to eight semi-finalists. Michaela Hajkova – resplendent in her white World Champs jersey – looked untouchable, cruising down to win the first heat, but there were some good battles further down the field with Anna Fletcher, Jen Shields and Laura Gould unlucky to miss out.
Onto the men’s quarter finals and the racing was hotting up, with Heat 11 being a particular highlight with Scott Beaumont (still hunting for his first win at Fort William) and Tomas Slavik appearing to be very evenly matched. Slavik had the snap and edged through ahead into the first corner, but Scott was on his heels the whole way down. Both riders progressed to the semi finals, and the top five qualifiers all made it through as well.
The first women’s semi-final was dominated by Michaela once again, with Sophie Cade also making it through, and there was also some great racing in the second with Josie McFall managing to nudge Helene Fruhwirth into second. Based on the racing so far it looked like the final would be Michaela’s race to lose, but Helene and Josie were definitely not going to make it easy for her.
The men’s semis were very hotly contested. Noel and Jono were flying and managed to take first and second respectively in their moto, but it could have gone either way. Ian Forsyth (qualified 16th) narrowly missed out on his first A-final. Once again, in the next moto Beaumont and Slavik were neck and neck out of the gate. Again Slavik had the edge down the first straight but Scott wasn’t prepared to sit back and he went for the overtake in the middle of the track. It was so close, and the riders touched…with Beaumont coming off second best and dropping back. Even worse for him, he lost speed and Hannes Slavik took advantage and snuck ahead, taking the final qualifying position. Disaster.
After a short break to let the riders get back to the top of the track, finals were underway. Hannah Escott dominated the small final from the end of the first straight and took the final spot on the podium, with the final four places decided in the A-final. Helene gave Michaela a real run for her money out of the gate and down the first straight, but Michaela had the edge and executed a clinical, flawless run to take the title. Josie McFall couldn’t replicate her semi-final form and had to settle for third, with Sophie Cade in fourth.
In the Men’s B-final, Scott Beaumont put the disappointment of the semi’s behind him to take a strong win (what could have been…) ahead of Conor Hudson.
In the A-final, helpfully for the commentators, it was Slavik and Slavik that were strong out of the gate, with Tomas edging his namesake. Top qualifier Noel Niederberger had won every race to this point, but couldn’t quite hold it together under the pressure of the final, not really contesting for the lead. Jono Jones – having not had a gate start for a decade – was slightly behind out of the gate, but he was intent on making up positions. He managed to get ahead of Noel and then started to hunt down Hannes Slavik, but he ran out of track before being able to make a move, having to settle for third place – not a bad return to the sport.
The crowd applauded Tomas Slavik for yet another win at Fort William, and also celebrated wildly the five British riders across the two Elite podiums. Once again, 4X racing at Fort William was a triumph despite the delays and the weather, and as always, the crowd elevated the whole experience with a real party atmosphere. It’s always a great show.
Full results from round one of the 2022 4X Pro Tour can be found here.