Words: Mike Rose

Photos: Nathan Hughes

Fort William is a beast of a downhill track. It is brutal. A real test for bike and body. It’s long, exposed for much of its length and a challenge to ride fast. It can be split into three parts: the first third is open to the elements (wind, rain and occasionally sun!), and is a mixture of berms and straights, all littered with boulders of all sizes. Go down here and you are probably going down hard. The middle third enters the trees and the tempo changes slightly. A technical section, with a different surface and the introduction of loam, roots, drops and gaps. Then of course there is the final lung-busting third. The flat out pedal down the motorway section. It’s crucial to carry speed, come into it a bit slow and your race is over. 

The track has remained pretty much the same for over 20 years now. There are always changes and tweaks, some subtle, others a little more obvious. This year it was clear that the organizers wanted to speed up the track, especially the lower half, in the hope of getting the fastest times closer to the four minute mark. Smoothing things out, straightening sections and missing out a couple of big chunks from last year. These changes, helped by the favorable weather, meant that the track was running about 20 seconds faster than 2023.

I should mention the weather. It can be unpredictable at the best of times in the Scottish Highlands, but for some reason the sun gods were in a good mood… for the first two days at least. But downhill racers are a fussy bunch. Whilst the marshals got sunburnt the super dry track became unpredictable. With no moisture in the ground the surface became slippy and grip in the upper open section was becoming hard to find. The toughest track of the year just became a little harder. And of course as the week went on the track deteriorated, crumbling away in places, wheel swallowing holes appearing… but come on, this is downhill racing, it is nothing new and is to be expected.

The weather conditions did change for the weekend, nothing too serious, but it did slightly affect the track and qualifying and semis on Saturday. On Sunday the cloud did come down at the top occasionally, but it was pretty much the same conditions for everyone.

There was (another) new format for 2024. Qualification for Juniors was now on Saturday with finals before the Elites on Sunday. And for the Elites, it was qualification and semis on Saturday, and finals on Sunday. For Juniors the top 25 fastest riders go through from qualification to the final. For the Elite Women 15 go through from qualification to the semi, and then 10 from the semi to the final. For the Elite Men 60 go through from qualification to the semi, and then 30 from the semi to the final. Confused yet! And of course there are protected riders! What this means is that Saturday is a super busy day, and that your race weekend could be over before it has even really got started. 
It’s fair to say that it was a tough weekend for the two INTENSE race teams. For MS Racing both Jacob Dickson and Tuhoto Ariki qualified and went into the semi with a 40th and 56th respectively. Neither rider managed to make it into the final, Tuhoto with a flat (57th) and Jacob just off the pace (46th). Cracking that top 30 is no easy job, many of the big names didn’t make it through. For Eleonora Farina in the women’s race it was frustration as she crashed out in 25th. 
For the IFR team it was a similar story, but with one exception (more on that below). Lou Ferguson qualified in 13th but couldn’t better that result in the semis. Joe Breeden qualified in 34th and then finished in 36th in the semis, just one second off making the main event. Then there were the two junior riders, Oscar Griffiths and Ryder Lawerence. Oscar made a “silly mistake” near the bottom of the track and missed the cut (41st), but for Ryder is was a different story. 
“Overall a great first race for the team, amazing to see the foundations in place for us to go and win races across all categories. Personally I felt like I was doing great, the setup was brilliant but a critical mistake with not taking tear offs for my goggles in my semi run meant I lost time due to poor visibility.” Joe Breeden
Just a few bits of info on Ryder. He’s from California, his dad is Randy Lawerence, ex DH racer and ex mechanic to the ‘stars of motocross’ (Jeremy McGrath, etc.), he has crazy bike skills, he is a first year Junior and this was his first World Cup race! With this in mind everything in Fort William must have been pretty alien to him, so to qualify in 10th (after a mac n’ cheese and hot chocolate!) and then finish 11th in the final is an amazing result. 

I had a great week at my first World Cup. I'm grateful for the awesome team I have to share this experience with. I am beyond happy with my results and I hope to keep progressing as the season goes on.” Ryder Lawrence

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, downhill racing is a cruel sport. It’s tough. There are so many variables, so many things to take into account, so many things that can go wrong. But that one run, all or nothing race to the bottom is so simple and beautiful, and that’s why we love it, and that’s why we keep coming back for more. 
Results on the whole may not have gone our way in Fort William, but everyone is buzzing and desperate to get back at it in the all-new venue of Bielsko-Biala in Poland. The whole circus starts again in less than two weeks, with finals on May 19th.