Fort William came with snow, rocks and more rocks, took out a quarter of the field and then added more rocks!
Last year I raced Fort William for the first time and found it really hard. The track was unlike anything I had tried to race before and I didn’t feel ready for it. I’d never been there before and having only seen the track on TV with my heroes racing it I wasn’t sure I would be good enough. I’d been back on my bike for 7 or 8 months following a big crash, I wasn’t pain free and although I had regained some strength from gym work I was lacking time on the bike. I found the huge jumps at the end difficult to ride and was on the brakes constantly to roll them. I struggled to get my head in the game and I left pleased to have made it down but with unfinished business.On the run up to Fort William this year I started thinking about being ready mentally. I hadn’t had a perfect off season with various injuries and wasn’t sure I had done enough riding but I had worked hard in the gym and focused on nutrition. I was feeling strong and healthy and recognised that physically I was in the best shape I had been for years. That seemed like a good start.Mentally I was a lot less sure. I knew I could ride the track and I knew I would still find the track hard, it is hard and even the pros find it hard! I had a great result at round one and although my finishing position was worse than last year, the competition was stronger. I had improved my time by 19 seconds which gave me some confidence in my riding and 2 podiums over the 2 weekends prior to Fort William made me think that I stood a good chance of improving my time from last year. I wanted under 7 mins 30 seconds but against a time of 8:06 last year that was a big ask. Looking at the field I knew a podium was unlikely so was focusing on improving my time and comparing me to me and not everyone else.
Logistically it was a nightmare, I needed to get from Bristol to Fort William for Friday to Sunday and that in itself didn’t seem a problem. The issue was that I needed to be in Brighton for 9am Monday morning to chair sessions at a conference I was also later presenting at! Balancing a busy job and racing is hard but thankfully with the help of an amazing PA and friends I managed to work out how to get myself and kit from one end of the country to the other, phew!
I arrived in Fort William Thursday evening feeling quietly confident and excited to ride. I got some bad news from my family and as I stood crying at the biscuit aisle in supermarket I felt bereft and very far from home. I ate my body weight in said biscuits and distracted myself by wrestling with my tyres, trying to get old ones off and get new ones to seal without getting sealant all over the B&B car park!Friday morning was overcast but soon warmed up as we got on track. It was unofficial practice and the track wasn’t taped yet so there was much discussion about possible lines as we set off. I frantically tried to remember lines from last year having not managed to do a track walk the day before and nervously committed to horizon lines hoping it was still the same and I remembered which side to plunge off! I got it mostly right with only one hairy moment where I went off the wrong side and found myself faced with a bigger drop than expected into boulders, mainly I was impressed with my recollection skills!I had a fab day of practice tagging on to Katy and Aston. Obviously they are much faster than me so I mainly chatted in the lift and at the stops we had on track but it was good to try and keep up and join in with line options that I might not have spotted myself. I still wasn’t sending the jumps at the end but I was jumping them (casing them as they’re huge!) which was a huge improvement over last year. We rattled through runs and the track became more familiar then we got out of the lift on our 4th run to a different world. Everything was white and the snow was hammering down on the wind, lashing into bare skin and stinging faces. I am terrified of board walk so the prospect of boardwalk covered in snow almost had me retreating to the lift but with a deep breath and strong words to myself I set off after Katy. I couldn’t feel my hands within seconds and couldn’t wait to get down into the woods out of the wind and where the snowline became rain. I got my best line yet through the rock garden before realising that the tape was up and the track actually now turned left half way down it!
I pushed back up and went to set off blindly into it following Katy but then I saw a friend go down hard in the first 20m and decided I might walk it first! The roots were slippery in the wet but the rock drop to flat fire road which was getting covered in wet mud was more than a little intimidating. I watched a few riders slide off it sideways and considered leaving it until the following day when the forecast said it would be dry. Then I remembered that I was riding well and could ride it regardless of mud and committed to it anyway. It was totally fine and I was relieved not to have to worry about it all night!A relaxing evening with dinner for one in the pub with my book in front of a cosy fire was exactly what I needed. I woke up Saturday looking forward to official practice. I got on track early and somehow got 3 runs done before lunch. I quickly realised it would be easy to do too many runs and when I asked myself what I would gain from another run I didn’t have a good answer. I decided to spend the rest of the day watching and eating cake. It turned out to be a good decision as the track got red flagged repeatedly leading to people being stuck on track for long periods of time and others struggling to get in more than 2 runs. Wahoo for early starts and decisions led by cake.
Sunday morning was frosty but the endless blue sky hinted at a scorcher of a day ahead. I drove to the venue feeling settled and happy. I got on track for a warm up run and discovered my arms were tired! I got pumped almost immediately and was struggling to hold on. My arms buckled at the bottom of a rocky step and suddenly I was humping my handlebars balancing on my front wheel facing the floor. Somehow I rolled out of it and around the corner where, still out of shape, I failed to unclip and toppled over in slow motion on top of Aston. Obviously we were right under the gondola so lots of people saw me go down and could ask me about it later, haha how embarrassing.
A rest and some recovery left my arms feeling much better and I got ready for my qualifying run. It soon became clear that the track was closed after another big crash and time ticked on. After a really long time the organisers announced there would be no qualifying so we were straight into race runs! It was hard not to be sad about only having to do one full run but at the same time I wasn’t really up to speed yet. Oh well we were all in the same boat.The number of ladies in my category had gone from 12 to 9 as injuries took their toll. Lining up at the start hut I was feeling calm and confident. I knew the track and I had really enjoyed practice. The wind was blasting across the hill blowing riders off a small jump near the top so I made plans to go round it for the first time all weekend, it didn’t make sense to crash at the start if it could be avoided.
I set off and blimey the wind was unbelievable! I struggled to hold lines as my bike was being blown sideways. Getting blown off the board walk became a real possibility so I tucked down as low as I could and relied on a speed tuck to see my through it! I wrestled with my bike against the wind and by the time I reached the woods I was really feeling it in my legs and arms! A quick talk to myself and I nailed it through the rock garden. I entered the new woods section and everything was blown out, I couldn’t see my line at all and ended up off track in the tape. I restarted and then got off line again, I tried to steer back on line but stalled. In too low a gear to pedal I ended up scooting along like a 3 year old, hitting the sketchy drop on to the fire road with only 1 foot clipped before dropping into the steep corner the other side with a deep sigh of relief.
I made it round to the motorway jumps at the end straight on into a head wind! My legs felt like lead and my lungs were heaving but I knuckled down and sprinted like a mad woman between each of those jumps. I’d been working hard in the gym and it showed, this year I could sprint between the jumps, yeah it wasn’t pretty and I was blowing hard but I could do it. I came over the line surprised to hear I was in 4th. We had started fastest to slowest and 4 people started ahead of me. I watched the others cross the lone anxiously watching results. The track took another victim and of the original start list only 8 finished. I could hardly believe I’d made it on to the podium, wahoo! Making me even happier I had made it under the 7min 30sec I wanted and taken a whopping 40 seconds off with 7 min 26 sec.
Without a doubt my training and nutrition helped me achieve results this race but the support of my coaches and learning to believe in myself helped as well. Despite running off track in the woods I never gave up and I chased that time the whole way down.With a huge grin I finished my logistical nightmare with a trip to Brighton, chaired a successful session, gave a well received presentation and rounded off the week with a gin. A week later having reclaimed my kit from the friend who ferried it I’m left with a stinking bag of clothes to sort but I’m still grinning!Rebecca Smith, Flow MTB rider