Scene: The Faithful of Fort William
By Mike Ferrentino
Photo by Sven Martin
A postcard commonly found in gift shops in the Scottish Highlands, plucked
out from a rack alongside fake tartans and red hair wigs, shows a cartoon
diptych—a sheep standing in the pouring rain on the left of the card, with the words Winter in the Scottish Highlands scrawled beneath, and a mirror image of the same rain-drenched sheep on the right of the card, with the words Summer in the Scottish Highlands written beneath.
There is probably no place more meteorologically fitting to this description than Aonach mòr, the venue for the Fort William World cup. Located just north of the imposing bald andesite and basalt dome of Ben nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, and at the northeastern end of loch linnhe, a long funnel of salt water opening to the sea to the west, the slopes of both Aonach mòr and
Ben nevis are legendary for their ability to lay a ferocious beating down in terms of brutal weather.
The town of Fort William itself is no picnic weather-wise with an average annual
rainfall of more than 70 inches, much of that blown sideways into town. But
things get really interesting once you start going uphill, and the summit of Ben
nevis records a staggering 160 inches of precipitation per year. this, just above
the start house of one of the longest courses on the circuit, a punishing track with a reputation for rewarding power and stamina equally alongside brass and skill, an armored graveyard of bike parts and crushed hopes, and home to what may be the consistently largest and most vocal home crowd in the sport of mountain biking.
Conditions for racing here are grueling, with the best racers in the world needing to stay completely pinned for about five minutes straight as they descend from the rock-strewn high section of the course into the fickle mess of the forest before finally emptying out into the massive jumps above the roaring amphitheatre of the finish area.
While the racing is a test unto itself, being one of the horde of fans is another sort of survival entirely. The upper sections of the course leave you exposed to whatever the weather decides to hammer the landscape with, yet descending into the relative cover of the forest subjects spectators to an intense horror of
invisible biting insects that relentlessly feast on any and all exposed skin—enough to drive some people into a state of flailing madness.
Immune, laughing at the notion of fair weather fans and the easy life, they
converge here, the faithful in their tens of thousands. they make pilgrimage
from all over the United Kingdom, from around the world, in costumes, carrying bells and horns, boisterously eating and drinking and celebrating the elemental madness of spending a weekend laughing at the weather and the insects and screaming themselves voiceless in support of their chosen champions.
It is this—the electric crowd so caught up in the glory and the spectacle of
racing, their excitement and enthusiasm so palpable that it makes the hair on your scalp tingle, this roiling party of the sport’s faithful—this is what cements Fort William into legend.