Some people don’t like trail centres,
they don’t think they are “proper” mountain biking. They think the guaranteed conditions and sanitized nature of the trails dilutes the challenge, complementing a poor rider’s lack of skill or fitness.
Right or wrong, these people have obviously never been to Fort William and ridden the Nevis Range.
Looking through old photos, I am reminded how lucky I was to get out there three times last year; twice racing (1o Under the Ben and Tour De Ben Nevis), and once on a guided ride session and general jolly.
For me, Fort William (not “Fort Bill”) has a special feel about it. There is something in the air or dirt that makes it different from other riding spots. It carries a heritage for our sport that few places, and nowhere else in the UK, can match.
I grew up not far from Fort William, but the sense of home I feel when I return to Kingussie or Aviemore is present here as well; it’s like coming up for air. The town itself can be a bit bleak, with the backs of shop units and hotels bizarrely facing out on to the waterfront with anonymous housing estates fringing the town like so many places, but its somehow different here.
The natural riding from the town is next level, with short, steep tech through to long-and-arduous all being catered for, but we’re talking about trail centres here.
The Nevis Range itself is a little way out of town just past Torlundy, the road snaking its way through mature woodland, the views of Aonach Mòr and Nevis itself obscured by the canopy and clouds. The hill has an elevation gain we’re not used to in the UK, from sea level to the UK’s highest peak in such a short distance gives the hill a monolithic quality.
The trails here present an embarrassment of riches. Two are accessed by the gondola, whilst below the deer fence among the trees, lies a full network of testing ribbons of singletrack. From the sublime World Cup XC Red and Witches Trails, through to stalwart stages of both the SES and Tour De Ben, to name but a few.
Gondola-accessed trails are a rare thing, the Nevis Centre is the only place in the UK to boast such a luxury, and if you have travelled to Fort William to ride, chances are these two trails brought you: the infamous World Cup Downhill course, and the “red” graded Red Giant XC route.
If you like mountain bikes, then the Fort William stage of the World Cup needs no introduction. The track is legendary, and has been a consistent stage on the race circuit since it was first included back in 2002. The track is as tough on bikes as it is on riders; it will reward you for going big, but will punish you for getting over-ambitious. I once rode it on a 100mm XC HT, it was like descending into the heart of darkness. I am surprised that my hands still work.
Setting off down the other side of Aonach Mòr, there is the XC red option if the downhill track is a bit too much. If you’re thinking a red route is a groomed Spooky Wood, prepare to adjust your expectations and true your wheels afterwards. Before you embark on the gondola you have to sign a waiver and fill in medical details. This is for the XC red as much as the DH; if they called it an XC orange or a pedally DH, less people would come.
It is both fast and slow, flowing and technical, it is a trail to measure yourself against, to see where you have progressed, and to be humbled by the hill as it shines a light on your weaknesses.
Starting off on a fast sprint where speed comes for free, you all too quickly reach the boardwalk. When dry, the acceleration only increases as you traverse the hillside with the roaring thunder of the boards beneath your wheels. Large slabs of grippy granite, interspersed with stacatto drops and bridges, bring you steeply down the hill before a slight uphill reminds you this is a cross country trail.
The gradient soon drops again with multiple line choices, more drops and bridges. Painted dots on the stone guide the way, but not always on the fastest or smoothest path. Switchbacks punctuate the descent but this alpine trail is devoid of berms. Soon the deer fence approaches as you enter the tree line. Once in the woods, the trail changes character; turns begin to berm, and jumps begin to appear, but the trail still has a sting in its tail if you let your guard down too soon.
In some ways, this trail is my white whale. A clean run has always eluded me, clearing sections that have previously challenged me and being schooled as soon as I got complacent.
I’ll get there one day, maybe next year.
Also, a visit to Fort William is not complete without a visit to Loch Laggan beach on the return journey.