Fort William 4X Pro Tour

So this was an unexpected turn of events that deserve an explanation. We all know I ride Enduro, and by now you know of my hap-hazard ways of riding head first into a rocks and trees, which ever it may be. But on this occasion I was running into 3 other riders, ON PURPOSE! Having never come close to competing at world class or pro level events, I found myself racing a discipline I have never ridden and only really started to learn the rules around a few weeks prior. It started when we (“we” my fiancé and I) started going to 4X Wednesdays, ( I’ve realised this weekend not everyone knows what that is but it is 4 “Cross” Wednesday) at Cumbernauld BMX track run by Euan Rossi of Lesley Bike Shop (Pro 4 X rider, sponsored by Spartan Protein, Jack brown Eye care, Roost MTB Holidays and Xtreme Bikes). And all published here in a shameless plug for the guys that helped this happen. This was in an attempt to promote 4X to more female athletes, so I agreed, and was shoved in the deep end, and asked to race the third round of the 4X Pro Tour at the Nevis Range in Fort William at the UCI Down Hill World Cup event! WHAT THE!  …

CLOSEST THING TO STAR-FIGHTERS YOU CAN GET;

For those of you who don’t know 4X is very different to the Enduro and Down Hill, which I am more used to. 4X, is a much shorter track lasting 40 to 60 seconds, it is smoother than Enduro and Down Hill and typically full of jumps, step-ups’, drops and big fast berms…Oh don’t forget the 3 other riders on the track at the same time with pointy elbows and homing beacons with your bike in their sight. There is the added element of other riders trying to cut you up and steal the best race line, spook you out by riding so close you can hear them breathe your name and in some cases, freak you the heck out such that you make a mistake and fall over a berm. And, if that means you both end up over the top of a berm then it is fair game! It’s the closest thing to star fighters you can get without joining the RAF, just on wheels.

TIME TO PRACTISE

So arriving at Fort William on Thursday, where the event practise is held in the evenings, using parts of the Down Hill World Cup track. We (me and my fiancé who was very kindly being my Mechanic for the weekend) headed to registration around 3pm to sign on and pick up number boards, gate entry and parking before 4pm when riders could begin practising the course.

Let me begin with, I had never ridden this track before! Parts of it yes in Enduro, but only a small part of it. It was clear that there had been a few changes to it recently. A track walk from top to bottom and I was face to face with the full demon. The track is a 45 second track, and initial runs in practise prove this to be hard to achieve. This particular track was made up of sizable rollers, pump sections where you lose your back wheel in a manual, step ups that have to be taken with speed to clear them and really tests your ability to jump distances. Don’t be  put off by that as realistically it is all roll-able. In fact I would ask anyone reading this, and especially female riders to come and have a go, it is somewhere to safely practise with very little repercussions and you can go at your own pace.

I was really nervous when I first arrived. Although I have raced a couple of Scottish Enduros here before, nothing was comparable to the UCI World Cup weekend. The thought of size of the crowd from the year previous was daunting. However, as soon as I was on the track and a couple of practice runs in, I was feeling a lot more comfortable. The Track was to become muscle memory over the practise sessions. The start gates weren’t working in practice sessions until race day, but that aside, I had 8 decent runs before I got a flat just at the end of our allotted practise time, Glad that wasn’t race day! Practise sessions allowed be to see the level of riders, and wow what a turn out! I overheard some riders chatting about how the level of competition here in Fort William was incomparably high to other UCI events and that then had me nervous about qualifying.

SEEDING OR SEETHING?

On the Friday evening we had another hour of track practice, with the gate in use for a few of the runs. Luckily with all the practice I had at the Cumbernauld BMX track in the last few weeks I was feeling comfortable with the mechanical gate. The purpose of the gate is to ensure all the riders start at exactly the same time. Unfortunately when it came to my qualifying run I was too eager out the gates and my foot slipped which resulted in a very wobbly start through the first straight. However, I hit the first berm and I was back on track and had a smooth run and enough for a good time. At 57.9 seconds I was sitting 12th out of 13 riders. Ok second from last for the pessimist but who cares it wasn’t race day and as the organisers had decided that because of the low numbers of women riding that no one was going to be eliminated at this stage.

WAITING FOR THAT GATE CALL;

Saturday and race day! Strangely enough I felt a lot less nervous about the race than I did about the qualifying. The concept of the large crowd and TV coverage was far more exciting than being nervous. I suppose this being a new discipline for me and an unfortunate qualifying run meant a weight wasn’t so much on my shoulders. I had nothing to prove, I was there and competing that was enough. The weather had also taken a big change from the day before, and I felt good about it as it played in my favour. Torrential rain had made the track soft and sticky, this was starting to feel more like the natural trails I am used to. This reigned in the riders from dryer countries, or those used to BMX tracks and I felt made them uncomfortable, so I was willing it to rain some more. Another hour of practice and I was back in the comfort zone and ready to race. The women were all held at the top whilst we waited for the first two rounds of men to do their knock out’s but eventually we were called up. Midge infested we huddled in front of the big fans, blowing the swine’s away. The feeling between the 13 of us was great, friendly and non-competitive, it’s an odd concept knowing we are there to compete against each other and in this case it can include some physical; racing contact. We all knew we had to compete but it was fun and relaxed.

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It was at this point my mechanic/fiancé had run up the hill to tell us what was happening in the men’s first few races. T-Boning! And, psychological warfare would describe the men’s tactics well. In the first heat one rider was t-boned off the track and in the heats to follow a tight drifting manoeuvre sent an outside rider over the top of one of the last berms. Although this was my first contact race, I had competed in a number of mass start races, so I was aware of the close contact that could be involved. But all the same it was all fare in love and war and the riders congratulated and commiserated with a sense of respect for the race tactics. I was keen to adopt some of these if I had to in my heat to come, and I was determined to take these racers to the ground.

So all women were in groups of three….except my group where the two slowest qualifying were put in to a group of four. There was one women’s heat ahead of mine and as I lined up behind the starting block, trying to ignore the camera in my face, I could hear the commentator calling the heat ahead of mine. I was feeling surprisingly calm and focused. I knew that there was one chance of me getting through this. There was one rider who was a close match, such that I could try and target her. Friendliness, had been left under the tent and it was game on. For gate selection the fastest rider in the group got first pick. As I was 3rd fastest in this heat I had 3rd choice and was centre line to outside on the first corner. With the suspension hard and high tyre pressure I was ready for the  changing grip and weather. The moment the gate dropped I had a clean and fast line and for a moment I was pulling in to second place.

The initial straight was a wide jump line throwing a sizable double with no run in. Variations of step ups and doubles fired riders in to a big right hand berm followed by another jump, table top double with final hip designed to launch you into a left hand berm. Being stuck on the outside line I began to lose pace against the other riders on this berm. This second berm was gravelly, loose (this separated the trail bike riders from the BMX riders as the new loose off camber section required a lot more commitment and an uncertain medium for the unsure) I was able gain ground by the second and had a number of opportunities where I was close to being able to take out the competition. To follow, I was sent over a hip with drop, and where once you went into another right hander into a rock garden; instead now sent you over the lip of that catch berm into double and another table top followed by a left hand Berm. Onto the track. I was gutted to find that the rock garden was removed! I have ridden it a number of times in Enduro’s and am comfortable on the rough terrain, however the Fort William 4X pro tour track bypassed this with an off-camber route. I had another opportunity here, as this was the point the men’s’ racers were taking each other out. Dropping over the berm I went for the inside line to try and spook out my competition.  But she was just out of reach and I was beaten out the berm; just a couple of inches too far away, and not quite able to pull it back. The track took racers back on the original course just ahead of a big table top. A straight, lining up for a step up, and a right hand berm that gave you two lines, one high and one low splitting the riding lines into two sections. The faster inside line on to a short roller, or double depending on your pace, or the wider line on to a sizable triple or pump section! Either way they launched you into the final left onto the bottom of Down Hill track just ahead of two pretty sizable drops. It is at this point I had no option but to boost the drops. Sounds easy for most, but for me I had a demon in my head about the first one, today that little so and so was officially beaten, I did it.

I ended the race buzzing! So I was third over the line and knocked out in the first round, it is still an experience I am dying to do again. Hearing the crowds and the commentators was a fantastic feeling, especially topped of seeing so many young kids in the crowds cheering and reaching out to high five the riders. The vibe and the place set the scenery for a memory I will never forget, my first and definitely not last professional 4X. It was a fantastic finish to three days of excitement.

Now I know what I am doing, I’ve got a year to nail the track and beast it next year. I may never be the best but I will bloody well try to be, and have fun doing it.

SO WHAT DO YOU RIDE?

One thing I have noticed is the huge range of bikes used during the 4x race. With riders typically coming from either BMX, Motocross, or Down Hill backgrounds, there was a lot of variability between 4x specific mountain bikes and hard tail jump bikes, up to quite large full suspension Enduro bikes. As Enduro bikes were what I had available to me, I opted to ride a Carbon Pivot Mach 6, size medium, to my fiancés dismay, as it was his bike. Kitted out in British made purple HOPE TECH components with British hand Built Sixth Element Carbon Rims on Hope Pro 4 hubs and laced with pair of Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires, the bike was built for a win so it was down to me to try and do it justice.

 

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