Jumping on the pedals out of the gate, slinging from corner to corner, pumping jumps and keeping it low and fast – all the while sucking air through the mouthpiece of a full-face helmet and trying not to throw it all away as you thunder towards the finish line. No idea what’s going on? Not a problem – James Porteous talks downhill.
Scotland has a history of being exceptionally bad at sport. We cling to the idea that beating England at football in 1967 makes us as good as the World Champions, when in reality we’re a nation that specialises in the noble art of the also-ran. Fortunately, mountain biking, and indeed cycling in general, is something we do reasonably well at – it makes a plesant change.
Actually, that’s not at all fair – the country pumps out some of the best riders and tracks on the planet – we have a reputation for brilliance, both in the events we host, and the people that ride in them. If we take the perspective of a sport that embraces the idea of a British team (and as a sport, we do), then you can speak proudly of a country that currently has three MTB World Championship titles to its name. Add them to a World-Record globe-trotter in the form of Glasgow University’s very own Mark Beaumont, and the knighted track-master that is Sir Chris Hoy, then it’s hard to find a sport in which Great Britain is more potent. Two wheels twixt our thighs frequently seem to equate to glory for the athletes of these Isles.
So why have you not heard more of the sport? Who’s to say – the nature of the discipline itself can only be described as televisual gold, with riders competing against the clock, thrashing their way down mountainsides at speeds that see them snatch victory, or snap appendages; all or nothing is often the name of the game, and clipping a tree at the speed of fast moving traffic will do a little more than spoil your afternoon. Downhill mountain biking is the mud-bourne equivalent of the ski races of the same name, with riders competing one at a time to push themselves into the top spot on the podium, or into the foliage that lines every race.
Ben Cathro, current British National Points Series Champion and World Cup competitor, is keen to elaborate on the reasoning behind Scotland’s enthusiasm for the sport: “Scotland has a landscape which suits downhill biking very well, as almost everyone can build a good track near where they live. Scotland also has a vast trail network which draws a lot of people into mountain biking in general so naturally, a lot of these people will progress into downhill biking.
“The World Cup round at Fort William is one of the biggest downhill events in the world and it is one of the best to witness. If you have been to this race and not wanted to take up downhill then you probably never will.”
The race the young Highlander speaks of is the crown in Scotland’s DH jewels – the round of the World Cup series that’s hosted in Fort William every summer. In the past, Nevis Range has played host to the World Championships (a mountain bike event second only in stature to the Olympics), and at present, is an immovable, award-winning fixture in the international race series that decides the creme-de-la-creme of the mountain biking elite throughout the world.
While Cathro is happy to admit the limitations of the country’s biking infrastructure, he also points out its inherent strengths and how it drew him into the sport: “Scotland doesn’t have the vast chairlift networks of France or Canada but it has some of the best tracks in the world. It helps if you like to ride in the wet.
“I used to ride my bikes down walkers’ paths and fire-roads for fun but I didn’t find out about proper downhill tracks ‘til some friends started riding downhill. One of them decided to sell his bike, and I convinced my father to buy it – I’ve been riding downhill since then.”
With enthusiasm such as Cathro’s – an attitude that took him into a career-best 8th spot at the Fort William WC event in 2008 – and the abundance of trails in the country, it’s hard to resist the idea of throwing yourself astride a bike, and down the trails at some of the country’s toughest tracks at Dunkeld, Innerleithen or even the World Championship track at Nevis Range. However, the NPS champ is quick to warn of the dangers involved in the sport, and the limitations of a newcomer to the discipline: “If you want to take up downhill properly you do have to spend quite a bit of money on a proper bike and equipment. So no, I wouldn’t say anyone could pick it up. If you want to have a bit of fun on a tame downhill track any strong standard bike would do. I know I used to love thrashing my Raleigh Max down some fire-roads.”
While it’s clear that the sport is something accessible to the majority of seasoned mountain bikers, it is not a side of cycling open to the faint hearted – you will be hitting speeds that can, and often do end with the rider bouncing down the side of a rocky mountain.
Undoubtedly, one of the exceptional aspects of the sport is the manner in which it offers holiday opportunities that rival those of skiing – while sticking yourself aboard a pair of planks will offer up some smashing goggle-tan prospects, the summertime equivalent of downhill in the Alps is much more appealing. High twenties in temperature; mellow, quiet mountain resorts, and a smorgasbord of lift-served, professionally-tended trails make the Alps a fantastic alternative to the paperback-smothered wilderness of cheap beach holidays.
Cathro is happy to testify to this: “My favourite place to ride is the Porte Du Soleil area in France. There are so many chairlifts and amazing tracks there. You can ride all day and not ride the same track twice. I haven’t found another place quite like it.”
While the professional-level trails on offer Worldwide are not a wise starting point for everyone, there are certainly enough low-level trails both at home and abroad to offer up the chance for everyone to have a punt at the sport. Even if your interest is simply an observational tickling, then head up to Nevis Range on June 6th and 7th, grab an air-horn, buy a pass for the Scottish round of the World Cup series, and watch the best on the planet duke it out on the slopes of Aonach Mor. You cannot be disappointed by what you’ll see.