Going Downhill Quickly
Usually I spend the weekend standing beside a race track with my camera taking photos of race cars flying past at high speed, but this weekend was a bit different. I was still standing beside a track with my camera taking photos, but what was whizzing past at speed was very different.
On the same weekend as the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg took place, I decided to head out to take in a mountain bike event at a more humble level. Aston Hill near Aylesbury was my destination and their Downhill ‘Double Header’ event was the reason.
Despite being a mountain bike fan, I’ve never been to a downhill event let alone photographed one so I wasn’t sure what to expect. With two races taking place over the weekend, one on Saturday and one on Sunday on two different downhill runs, and morning practice runs followed by two timed runs with over 100 entrants each day, there was plenty of action to see.
I used the practice sessions to follow the runs down the hill and find some angles to photograph from. The top section seemed relatively flat, but as you followed the route it quickly became apparent just how steep and technical some of the sections were. It was difficult to navigate them on foot let alone on a mountain bike. Riders were using the practice to learn the lines, some stopping to do individual sections again and watching other riders to see what line they were taking and judging which was the quickest.
It became apparent that although this was an amateur event, these guys took it very seriously and were very good at it. There’s no place for nerves in this sport and one false move could have disastrous, and painful, consequences. Balls of steel were top of the ‘Items Required’ list and you really need to witness firsthand the speeds these riders were achieving to believe it.
Having made it to the bottom of the hill by the end of Saturday’s practice I decided that I would photograph the first group of riders on their timed run at the two big jumps just before the finish line. It was here I witnessed just how brutal downhill mountain biking can be. A rider has just lost grip before a large step down jump sending him crashing to the ground and off the jump landing heavily. The race was stopped while the Ambulance crew tended to the rider, who despite receiving cuts, bruises and ripped clothing, seemed to have avoided any major injuries. The need for full face helmets and body armour was apparent.
Racing was soon back under way and the time seemed to fly by as quick as the riders did and the end of the first timed run was soon over. The second timed runs took place after the lunch break and I started from the top of the hill this time. There were more spectators up on the top half of the route who made plenty of noise as each rider flew by. Some even had cow bells, horns and a vuvuzela to help create a great and friendly atmosphere. On the occasion a rider came off, the roar or support when they got back on and continued at break neck speed down the hill was really special. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
After the presentation of prizes for the numerous categories of riders, the official opening of Aston Hill’s new Pump Track took place. A few of the very young riders took to it for a ride before making way for the older ones to put the track through it’s paces. It passed with flying colours and everyone seemed to enjoy the new addition to the bike park.
The final event of the day was the ‘Whip-Off’ where the more confident and probably bonkers riders competed with each over to see who could produce a Whip that even Danny Hart would have been proud of over one of the jumps on the ‘Surface to Air’ downhill run, one of Aston Hill’s many downhill routes. This was quite a spectacle to watch and the jumps were breath-taking despite the occasional close call on landing. The first day had been brilliant and I was certain Sunday’s action wasn’t going to disappoint either.
I was right, it didn’t disappoint. Sunday bought a new route to explore which encompassed fast sections with jumps and slow, steep technical sections. There seemed to be even more spectators than the previous day all there to cheer on the riders and give their support. Another rider had a heavy fall hitting his head on one of the jumps, but his helmet did it’s job and after some treatment was on his feet to the applause of onlookers. These lads (and lasses) were made of tough stuff and had more than earned my respect.
Although the weekend had flown by in a blur, I had a fantastic time and enjoyed every minute of my new experience. I watch all the Down Hill world cup events online and even have a few DVD’s so to actually get out and witness one first hand was fantastic. With my home county somewhat lacking in hills suitable for a downhill event, it was nice to be able to attend one less than 100 miles away. I hope now to attend more in the future and capture on camera. Even my girlfriend who tagged along with me for the weekend told me she had a great time and loved watching it.
Many thanks to everyone involved in organising the event and to Aston Hill for hosting it. They should be proud of their efforts. A few more photos from Saturday’s race can be seen here and Sunday’s race, here.