Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter 5: It's All Down(s)hill From Here

- Rodney Collin

Nothing could really follow in the footsteps of a weekend like that. The Summer was never going to be a constant upward mental march to a glorious triumphant peak but, rather, a haphazard mix of peaks and plateaus, flavoured by the random series of events and opportunities of which nobody in their right mind could predict. Such is life. I was confident, however, that so long as I stuck to the game plan, it wouldn’t be long before the next peak.

And I was right. After the extravagance and excellence of the birthday weekend, the waiting game for the next Yes commenced. It lasted all of two days. I spent those days at work wondering only about where the next weekend would take me. On a related note, work and other things which were usually grudgingly done now seemed much more manageable, stress-free now my life was. On the second day of work, I received a text:


The next opportunity had presented itself. It was another one of these invitations that would most definitely have been turned down by the anxious introvert that used to live inside me. But this was no time to let him back in – not today, not any day. Time to grab the bull by the horns and see where it took me.

I have been into mountain biking since I was around 12, where I miraculously lost the fear of hurting myself (also closely correlated to the discovery of alcohol) and have always preferred two wheels to four. This was perhaps also the fault of my uncle (although that is in no way meant to big him up), who could cycle before he could walk, runs his own bike courier company and still to this day (at the borderline OAP age of 40 (ish)) goes out biking every weekend. Did I mention he looks like a chubby milky bar kid?

Anyway, I went online and booked the tickets straight away. The annual event at the Nevis Range in Fort William is the flagship stop of the mountain bike downhill world cup, and, at 2.8km and a drop in altitude of 555m, is the longest and generally regarded as the most difficult course on the circuit Running over the course of a weekend, it consists of practice runs, qualifiers and finals for both the men’s and woman’s downhill, as well as short-course mountain bike cross (where 4 riders race at one time) and various other things around the range to busy yourself with.

Jack and I would drive up and camp wherever we could find space, and Caz and Simo would drive up and stay at a camp site. Only trouble was, we could only stay for the Saturday night and to beat the queues on the Saturday morning you need to be there mega early. I asked my Maw if I could borrow the car for the weekend (which, amazingly, she granted without question – in retrospect probably because she didn’t want my newly road-legal little brother driving it) and got ready.

At 4am on a Saturday morning (normally around the time I would be returning from the pub) I left Lanark and drove to Glasgow to collect Jack, managing to make it to Partick in a (suspected) world record time of 27 minutes. The heat of the Summer was already apparent as we left the Friendly City and we were on the A82 in no time.

The drive was a remarkable one. From Dumbarton to Fort William we must have saw 20 cars at the most. You tend to forget when you are a lowlander what a ridiculously beautiful country you live in. I can honestly say that speeding across Rannoch Moor at 125mph at 7am with the windows down and system up  (listening to Snoop Dogg and Gorrliaz like the wannabe pimps we were) was the most alive I have ever felt. Well, sober anyway. And yet, I had only left my house a mere 3 hours before. Normally, myself and Jack wouldn’t even be thinking of getting up yet, dreaming away for another x hours before waking up to another beige day full of procrastination. And yet here we were, hurtling towards the Cairngorms with a reckless abandon for life not heard of since Thelma and Louise.

We arrived in Fort William at 8am, starving, to find no shops open yet. This was not as pressing a concern as trying to find somewhere that we could actually sleep for the night, so we resolved to do that first. Driving into the main car park at the foot of Ben Nevis, the Wee Guide Guy informed us that we could technically pitch our tents anywhere as the land was owned by the forestry commission. We were also advised to get a midge net, a suggestion which we did not take heed of and one which was to come back and bite us in the arse and, for that matter, the rest of our bodies, later. From the car park to the arena was about a 15 minute walk and at some point down this walk we found a field which, to our amazement, was empty. Flabbergasted, we set up our tent, the first of what would surely be many – this was a prime position!

At 8.30 the gates opened. We were front of the queue and I personally felt like some sort of weirdo – like a shopper waiting for the doors to open on Boxing Day, a Harry Potter enthusiast, in cloak, waiting on the book to be released at the chime of midnight, or like a geek waiting patiently outside the classroom on the first day of term. But feeling like that was worth it. First ones up the gondola, we got to the mountain café, about 3 quarters of the way up Ben Nevis, just before 9am. The sun was starting to poke its way through the mountain mist, spraying across the horizon, paving the way for a view like no other; maybe it was the drive. Maybe it was the altitude. Maybe it was the fact it was 9am and I’d been up for 6 hours. But I felt drunk on cheese. And we hadn’t even watched any biking yet.

Now, I have done a fair wee bit of biking in my time, at an amateur level at best. And I’ve seen it on the telly and thought ‘I could do that, nae bother’. But seeing it up close is really something else. These guys and girls do shit with their bikes that at times seems superhuman, and at such speed that you are left in awe. We watched the morning’s practice and qualifying sessions on the way down the track, and met Caz and Simmo at the bottom to start drinking in the sunshine.

After watching a bit more of the practice sessions, we found ourselves a good spot up the hill where we could watch the four cross and get drunk. We were positioned directly behind a large jump and this resulted in the practice sessions consisting of some guys in the crowd persistently shouting to every rider who stopped ‘here mate, dae a trick!’, then laughing wildly at anyone who managed to fall. The same guys were also the ones who decided it would be a good idea to climb up 100ft high trees for a laugh. Heroes amongst men, some would say...

Hilarity aside, the 4x is a great spectator sport, and the men’s and woman’s events were won by Aussie Jared Graves and Jana Horakova of the Czech Republic respectively. Plenty pints were drunk, much skin was burnt and many gay pictures were taken throughout the afternoon.

It was then back to the tent to get ready for the night ahead in Fort William. Where we thought there would be hundreds of tents in the field we were camped, there still only a few which were pitched. As I annoyed Jack while he brushed his teeth (see video below), we were starting to see, or more accurately, feel why this was the case. As soon as the sun was out of sight, the midges became horrendous and inescapable.

We got into Fort William and toured a few pubs, got horrendously drunk and then went to a ceilidh. I have always been quite partial to a ceilidh, enjoying the drunken stupidity of dancing like an idiot with people you barely know, flinging girls round in your hands and such like – perhaps harking back to the good old days of the dreaded Christmas Dance. Braw. This ceilidh was a particularly large one, one which I, ahem, reveled in (I’m going to use the excuse of sunstroke before I tell you what – so I’m told – happened next).

There are times when you can’t do the sensible thing, when you can’t act like a responsible adult at all; you just have to do whatever insane thing comes into your head. When bad people do it they end up murderers, when good people do it they end up heroes, and when the rest of us do it we end up looking like total idiots. But when’s that ever stopped us?

Ceilidh dancing with a down’s syndrome sufferer was one of those times.

I don't remember taking that video, but apparently the boys were struggling to keep me still in one place throughout the night's festivities.

I awoke in the morning still drunk, adamant that we were going to catch the first run at 9am. What I was not prepared for was the fact that my face, arms and legs were alive with midges. I got out of the tent (ours was one of 3 in the field – now you see why) and tried my best to fend them off, but it was like being caught in some sort of midge-based nightmare: there was nothing that could be done. I tried to awake Jack from his slumber, but to no avail, so I took drastic action in the form of pulling his sleeping back out of the tent with him still in it. He did not in any way appreciate the hilarity of the situation and we had a bit of a fall-out. It was understandable – I would have been pretty annoyed if I was dragged from the comfort of sleep into Midge Hell.

We met Caz and Simo, who relayed to me the bad news of my behavior from the night before (Caz hadn't fared much better apparently - he was dancing with a guy in a wheelchair), and went up the gondola. On our way down the mountain, my hangover began to kick in. This would not normally have been a problem, but postponement in the form of alcohol was not an option as I had to drive back home that day. Nae luck.

We got down to the arena in time to see the top men’s qualifiers come down their final run. It was a hotly contested final, eventually won by Britain’s Gee Atherton (much to the crowd’s, and our own delight) in a track record time of 4 minutes 35.7 seconds. To see a full review of the event, click here and to see (actually good) videos here.

The drive back was the polar opposite of the one on the way – never before I have been so disinterested in scenery. I was glad to be back in the comforting, midge-free surroundings of home. That said, midges and bad dance partner choices aside, it was a good weekend – something a bit different rather than just pubs, clubs, chips and cheese. More importantly, it was another notch on the bedpost of Yes, another experience that I’m more glad than sad that I partook in. The cramps of conscience I had felt not all that long ago were starting to diminish: I could feel a new sort of life entering my body with every breath – a life where the barely feasible had become the entirely doable, where the can’t be bothered had become the go for it and, at the most basic and important level, the No had become the Yes.

NEXT WEEK: Insanity!

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