Select your viewpoint for Fort William’s mountain bike extravaganza with a little help from an expert
It’s often said that the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Fort William is great for spectators. Partly this is because it involves the best downhill riders in the world hammering down one of the most dramatic courses you’ll find anywhere; partly it’s because a huge grandstand is erected at the bottom of the hill, affording... well... I suppose you might say a grandstand view of the action, as competitors come flying over the last few jumps before the finish line. But the beauty of the Fort William event – taking place next Saturday and Sunday – is that fans can also roam along the full length of the course. This means you can either have the stadium experience beloved of followers of more conventional sports, replete with roaring crowds, tannoy announcements and as much fast food as you can reasonably spill down your front in one afternoon, or you can strike off on your own and find a quieter corner of the track – somewhere you can get up close to the riders, just as you can at smaller mountain bike events.
If you fancy option two and you’re feeling fit, you can start at the bottom of the hill and slog your way up, but most people opt to take the Nevis Range gondola to the top and then pick their way down, stopping at intervals to watch the racers as they flash by in a blur of mud and pedals.
Fort William regulars will already have their favourite vantage points mapped out, but what if you’re a first-timer? To get an idea of the best places on the course to catch the action, Four Seasons spoke to the event’s official photographer Keith Valentine, aka phunkt.com. Now one of the best lensmen in the business, with an eagle eye for an unusual angle, Valentine got his big break shooting the Fort William World Cup back in 2003.
“I got invited by a friend of mine and I had this cheap Sony Mars bar camera,” he recalls. “It basically looked like a giant Mars bar with a lens on it. It was nothing special, but I took some pictures and sent them to Rare Management [the company running the event] and they liked them and I think they used some of them. The next year I went up with a better camera and took some pictures and they used them again, and so every year since then I’ve been upgrading my gear and going up and taking pictures and getting better and better. Now I know the course probably better than anybody else.”
Valentine says the majority of photographers at Fort William set up shop around the finish line, as this is usually where the most spectacular pictures are to be had, but he recommends checking out the top section of the course too, particularly if you appreciate the lonelier, man vs mountain aesthetic. Up here, before it dips into the treeline, the track winds its way through open moorland. If it’s raining or windy or both, this can be a bleak place to hang out, but if the weather is average or better it’s a great area to get a sense of how the riders flow through the landscape. The optimum viewing position in this zone? Valentine recommends waiting at the point marked Snakes and Ladders on the trail map, just where the track crosses under the gondola cable. “There’s a small but really sharp-looking rock garden and it’s quite an exciting place to watch,” he says. “You can stand right beside it and you get to see the riders coming from all the way up the hill. There are all these jagged rocks and you’re like ‘Wow – can they really go across that?’ But these guys go flying through it.”
Valentine advises against watching in the woods further down the hill (“there’s not much room and you don’t really get to see much”) but at the bottom of this section he recommends spending some time in the area between Hip Replacement and Motorway.
“Hip Replacement is a right hand berm and then a left hand jump,” he says. “It really f***s your hips up, hence the name. That then takes you onto the Motorway which has got these three massive jumps on it, so Motorway is quite a cool place to watch.”
So there you have it: the best places to watch the best mountain bike event of the year. Need a little aide-memoire for race day?