I had a go at my first downhill race in 2016 at Innerleithen, and absolutely loved it. So I decided to try my hand at the Scottish Downhill Association series in 2017. A different set up to the enduro racing, in downhill you practice the same track multiple times on day 1, and you get two timed runs on day 2. The fastest time wins.
Round 5 Fort William 10.09.17
The home of the UCI world cup played host for the final round of the Scottish Downhill Series and the Scottish Champs races. Whether you have ridden this track, or not everyone is aware, this is a brutal track to both experts and novices alike. Despite this the Nevis Range downhill track frequently ranks high as a favourite for many rider’s in the UK.
I raced this track earlier in the year at the No Fuss Endurance Downhill event, but that was all about endurance and survival over speed, so attacking this track at full speed was going to be new to me. At 2.8km long and 555m of descent it is a long time to hold on to your bike while it tries to shake your nerve loose.
In true Scottish style, the weather played a big part, turning the weekend into a race of two halves. Saturday morning was beautiful bright and clear day, the track was dry and lose. My excitement very quickly got shot down, four corners in and I washed out over a lose berm, tearing some new holes through my race jersey (and I was doing so well at keeping this one intact). Jumping back on my feet, and back on to the track, hoping that was my only crash of the weekend. The rest of the trail was running very predictably. Keeping lose and relaxed over the many boulder fields seemed to be the only way to get down in one piece, and to hit the faster lines. Passing through the deer gate and the half way point, I am loving the new section of the world cup track. Even though it’s now starting to look a bit cut up, it’s still draining well and running fast. I still can’t make up my mind the fastest line through the trees here as there seems to be three with various exits. The track re-joins the old trail but the SDA crew had added in a surprise corner cutting the flow enough just to surprise you and just to make sure, this was a muddy root filled hazard to navigate during the race. After the switchbacks the track took a sharp left up the fire road dropping riders in below the UCI world Cup road gap and into a big gap jump, then over the silverline wall ride and into the trees. At this point the track took the familiar route over the hazard hoofer river gap and down towards the motorway section and over the finish line. The forecast for Sunday bought rain, strong winds, and one forecast I saw suggested snow. Because of this the decision was taken to get at least one race run done on Saturday afternoon in case there was no chance of riding on the Sunday.
Having a race run on Saturday was an unusual feeling. Lining up at the start line felt remarkably calm as nerves hadn’t quite sunk in that we were about to race. I was quick out the start gate, where the track had dried out and become lose I almost lost it on the same section as earlier in the day, just narrowly keeping the bike on the track, but losing a few seconds. Despite the near miss at the start, the rest of the run went cleanly and I bagged a time of 7:26, although certainly not that fastest on the course I had beaten my personal best by 8 seconds, so I was happy with that, and it placed me in 6th place which was what I had hoped for.
Now as Sunday rolled around it was clear that we were up against the weather as predicted. The gondola opened for practice at 9:30, with race runs starting at 11. Trying to keep ahead of the rain storm and high winds, the race was put on hold a number of times just waiting for gaps in the weather. Overnight the rain had changed the course, although not as expected as the lose berms were now nice and grippy, a few muddy ruts had started to appear and spread themselves over the rocks that were already slippy. My race time on Sunday was a lot slower than Saturday, but I could have predicted that as I’m almost always slower in the rain, but it was enough to hold on to my 6th place.
Although not all the races in the series went as I had hoped I am just really happy to have survived my first ever Scottish Downhill Series, and am already looking forward to what 2018 has in store.
Round 3 Glencoe 28.05.17
Glencoe Downhill; enough said….
With a reputation of destroying even the most skilled riders, it filled me with excitement and dread. I’ve ridden this track only a handful of times and few were successful at speed. Open mountainside, boulder fields, river bed slabs; formed by the extreme weather conditions of winter and time, Glencoe is formidable at least, only made more so by the ability of the trail builders here. Fantastic falls short of describing this track, it’s my comfort zone, give me rocks over the tight muddy roots of Ae and Innerleithen. It is safe to say I was optimistic with the recent beautiful weather.
Practice day; Bluebird sunshine with a light breeze. A clean dry track, early morning start and the chairlift clear meant that there was no waiting about for runs in the day. Unlike a lot of other Scottish venues there isn’t much scope for different lines, so the race line is the “only” way down, eyes peeled for any additional features for the new season.
The track starts next to the top of the chair lift. A wide fast stretch of track, doubles or rollers it is up to the rider’s skill to choose, a speed checking level drop and kicker was of no concern and the first section was taken at breakneck speed. A sharp left turn and you’re dropped into the black section where you have no need to check the signs as you know you’re in for a arm pumping ride. A string of berms flipping you out of each with more g force came next. Agility and a light touch is the key here to keep the flow. A short burst over a wooden walk way marked the end of the easy part. The monster of Glencoe track turned into very long lumpy off camber rock slab where any touch of the breaks could have sent me sliding in the wrong direction. Luckily there is a nice big wooden wall ride at the bottom to catch and transport your speed downwards.
Did I mention that this a track includes every difficult formation in one 4 minute run? No, oh well. Now comes the loose boulders. You have only just gotten used to the rock slab and shooting berms and now you have a loose boulder field, this is not for the feint hearted as what follows is a relentless series of drops, doubles and kickers leading towards what I found one of the most challenging rock chutes I have ever ridden in my life. If you go even slightly to fast or off line then you are tossed end up over the bars. In essence there are 3 lines here; Right around the steep chute on the not so chicken line flings you out facing the wrong way with your only option being a time sapping tight right hander; Option two to the right of the slab is a bone cruncher, let that front wheel drop and you are head long into a berm, you have to hold the line across to the left and hope your not to out of control to make the tight right catch berm; line 3, full left hand side and you have to have confidence here. A small slab at the top sends you into a short period of “oh Sh!t in going over the berm” followed by “ shove that nose down” and the “whoosh” your round the corner with speed. If you catch the berm correctly you are straight in to another drop and off camber rock slab.
In the next section, honestly it blends together in my mind. It is a long stretch of more boulders and drops, but by this point I am normally already mentally fatigued and my body is holding on for the ride. 2 minutes in, 2 blooming minutes what on earth has Glencoe not got to throw at me! Time for a smoother ride your thinking and you are not disappointed. Some smoother, groomed track with some fun fast features; A double, river gap, and impressive step down that sends you into a place that you should need a flight certificate to do and just as you land there is a a full contact right hand berm and the final two table top before the finish.
Towards the end of the practice day the rain came on and lasted a lot of the night. This gave the track a much needed clean up and added grip. A bit of sunshine, and a light breeze, (and a few repairs by the trail fairies) on race day meant the track was running perfectly. I squeezed one practice run in on Sunday morning and the in to the race runs. There had been a lot of crashes over the weekend. I played the first run safe and smooth and bagged a time off 3:28, so I pushed a bit harder on the second run, which resulted in me over cooking the rock chute and put a foot down to rectify my line choice, none the less I still bagged a second run time of 3:25, and second place!
To say I was buzzing at the end of it was an understatement. Glencoe is rapidly becoming one of my favourite tracks to ride, and combined with beautiful sunshine, great views and some fantastic chat from the girls racing on the day, not to mention my first podium finish, I think I will be smiling for a long time to come.
Round 2 Innerleithen 24.04.14
Round two was held at the closest thing I can call home turf. Innerleithen is somewhere I have been ridding for a few years, and probably ranks as one of my favourite places to ride in the UK. Despite this the Scottish Downhill Association managed to design a course that used so many different bits of old trails and a few brand new bits, that a lot of it was unfamiliar to me. What was even more surprising was the weather. A couple of dry weeks meant that the track was running dry and dusty from top to bottom. Dream conditions really.
The course was beautifully designed and included every terrain type available. It started slightly higher up than last year on what was the old ‘IXS trail’ which is tight and rooty but quickly pops out on to ‘gold run’, a quick sprint through the muddy section and over the wall brought us on to the lower line towards the fire road gap jump, and down through the tunnel, which is a long, very fast tree lined jump line. The course then took a sharp turn away from ‘make or break’ and on to a new off camber grassy section with some brand new berms which were running in beautifully over the weekend. This then re-joined the bottom couple of berms of ‘luge’. Across the road and a steep drop in to the final section mostly on the ‘cresta’ trail, which was tight, steep and running very fast over the dry dusty tree roots towards a couple of technical drops over the tree roots and a log. The trail gets even steeper in this last section, with tight switch backs which narrowly avoided the trees. Combined with dry loose rocks this resulted in one of those trails where even if your breaks were locked the bike was still accelerating, but results in the best adrenaline rush when you could let of the breaks and get over the finish line.
I had a successful and clean first run, hitting all the right lines nice a smooth bagging a time of 4:23 which put me in 8th position. I was determined to push the second run harder and cut that time down, but in doing so I ended up on a few wrong lines which cost me, although I did beat a few personal bests on Strava, I only managed a time of 4:28, and 9th position on the second run. Overall this was enough to get me a 10th finishing position.
Round 1 Ae 19.03.17
Round one was held at Ae near Dumfries. This is a well established trail centre now, complete with bike shop, café, showers and bike wash. The track used for the race made use of the majority of the established downhill track. It totalled 2.2km and 203m descent, and included a lot of various terrain. The weather was against us, having rained most of the week, but the start of the course runs along a skinny bit of single track across some windswept moorland before diving in in to some steep corners which had become a narrow channel washed out by the rain, the track then started to open out with a couple of small jumps before the first section of woodland. There were 3-4 different line choices which weaved around the slippery tree roots, and eventually back on to the hardpack track leading to a small river gap drop, and a couple of step ups. This turned on to an off camber corner which drops in to the fire road crossing about half way through the course. A few peddle strokes along the road sent riders on to a short section of rock garden which turned on to a wide motorway section including the gap jump. The race course then took a sharp diversion off the normal downhill trail and in to the woods. Due to the freshness of the track and the bad weather this section quickly turned to very sticky and rutted mudslide causing a lot of trouble for the riders and many good opportunities for the photographers. However once out of the trees riders were back on to the smooth solid trails of the well used Ae trail, including another double, and hip jump, sending riders over the drops and in to the g-force berms which caught them and shot them out over the final step up. The last feature of the course was the ‘elevator’ an insanely steep slope dropping nearly 10meters of which I’m not sure the rain and mud made the slightest difference to the grip, but sent all riders sliding at speed in to a giant mud pit under the finish line.
This round of the SDA saw 20 girls tackle the course, which I have been informed is unusually high number of applicants. This is great news if the numbers are on the increase, as unfortunately due to the low numbers of women in the sport there are only two categories. Youth, Junior, and Juvenile (everyone under 19) is in one category, and Senior, Masters, Elite (anyone over 19) is in another one, this results in a really wind range of skills and abilities. Unfortunately when it came to my race run I was hit with a nauseating head ache which made it very difficult to concentrate. I managed a 14 place, which although not what I had hopped for, has given me plenty to aim for over the rest of the series.