Joe Barnes - AKA Top Chief - the Fort William rider with skill and creativity galore who has carved out his own unique space in the mountain biking world


There are certain characters in the world of mountain biking that just seem to define a geographical area. To me, Fort William will always be a place where the riding is tough, the trails are gnarly and the mountains are high, but the riders don’t take themselves seriously.

They are grassroots lads and lasses that always seem to have smiles on their faces and mattocks in their hands, or a bike under their backsides. They ride for the sheer joy of throwing a bike down a trail, and if they happen to win a race along the way, then great. But that fun-first attitude hasn’t stopped the area producing some of the best riders in the world.

Flying the flag for Fort William

Joe Barnes has been at the heart of this movement and flying the flag for Fort William since he was a nipper, beginning his racing career at the tender age of 14 astride an Orange Patriot supplied by the local bike shop.

Several years of Orange-sponsored downhill and mass-start racing followed with very respectable results up to World Cup level, years that saw his shabby-chic Transit van – nicknamed The Landship – following the race circuit around Europe with a group of good friends in tow.

Joe was never a straight downhiller though – hacking through those janky mountains around the Mamores and Ben Nevis produced a bullet-proof trail riding background that meant the EWS, when it appeared in 2013, was practically tailor-made for his abilities.

At this point everything went up a gear; Canyon stepped up and signed him for its Factory Racing Enduro squad and he continued to compete for the brand for the next six years, with EWS results topping out at 3rd place overall on a few occasions. A huge success by anybody’s standards.

You can take the lad out of Fort William, you can’t take Fort William out the lad

But while you can take the lad out of Fort William, you can’t take Fort William out the lad, and even while he was taking each and every race seriously, giving it his all, he continued to stay true to those fun-loving roots.

When he got the contract with Canyon, he managed to extend a side deal to cover some of his local riding mates so they could join him on the journey. When he was allowed a mechanic, he employed a local friend to come with him. And throughout these adventures across the world, he always had a video camera nearby.

The Dudes of Hazzard

His filming career started as a bit of fun, a movie self-shot around the local area when he was at high school that showcased some of the amazing scenery of Fort William while his friends variously leapt and cycled off it. While the action was clearly crazy, what shone through was the fun, the freedom and the camaraderie that they all felt while making the most of Scotland’s great outdoors.

“After shooting all these stunts with my friend Richard Finlayson, we got help editing from Richard’s dad’s friend Gordy. He was one of the founders of Grand Theft Auto, and an editing genius.” Joe smiles, “We just sat there watching, learning everything off him. It was a good apprenticeship!”

Gordy also came up with a name for the group of lads that has stuck till this day – the Dudes of Hazzard. The lads may have come and gone, the faces changing, but Joe has always been the ‘Top Chief’ of the brand, as his Instagram handle suggests.

“That was my first dabble in film making, but I didn’t come back to it until about three years later when I shot the Dudes of Hazzard Episode One. Stu Thomson was in it, Ben Cathro, all sorts of people.”

In this, the lads ski, powerwalk, backflip off cliffs into rivers and ride the local trails to a background of cheesy pop tunes. Sheer joy just radiates out the screen from start to finish, and it has set a template for all the Dudes films that follow. Riders scurry down unlikely rutted singletrack, coming off to the great celebration of the others.

Nobody is precious about trying to look perfect, so even though their riding skills are stratospheric, they all come across as regular guys who just love being out on the trail. It’s a great ethos to champion.

These films were a constant background presence as Joe raced his way around the world with classic episodes such as ‘The Dudeumentary – Road trip in the Landship‘. Instead of documenting a professional racer in his predictably cosseted team setup, this was a bunch of lads in a homemade camper dossing their way around the continent for two months, camping wild and eating beans out the back door of their van, having the time of their lives as they navigated from race to race.

The mood changed at the events as each of them – Liam Moynihan, Fergus Lamb and Joe – all pulled their helmets on and gave it full beans at each start line, only to live it up at a lakeside fire later that day. If you want inspiration for your riding, there are few better videos to watch.

“My films have always had a few morals I like to stick to – friendships are important, not taking yourself too seriously, and I always make them kid-friendly, so adults don’t have to worry about them watching. That is my formula I guess.”

Getting creative

While his racing started the ball rolling for sponsorship and recognition, it is the video work that is pulling strongly these days.

“I enjoyed being on the [Canyon] factory team, but I felt like there was a missed opportunity for what I wanted to do on the branding side of things. I had the Dudes of Hazzard where I could channel all my ideas and creativity while riding for them, but I wanted to do more of that. Even down to deciding my own race calendar and jersey designs or bike paintwork.”


So he decided to go out on his own in 2019, securing a deal with Orange and Endura.

“I didn’t know anyone at Endura at the time, so I think I just mailed the ‘info@ email address and luckily someone asked me to come in and see them! They have been brilliant, and it worked out well because they custom-print jerseys and I think it is so important to do your own designs. Give them a bit of personality.”

When I started, you had to race to be a professional rider, but now you can be a videographer or social media person and be a pro that way

Chatting to Joe on his remote trails, built on the lower slopes of the Ben Nevis range, it occurs to me he has helped pioneer a new brand of professional rider. One that doesn’t have to race to get the attention of big brands.

“When I started, you had to race to be a professional rider,” he agrees, “but now you can be a videographer or social media person and be a pro that way. I am sort of halfway between the two, racing and producing content. A lot of kids now can cut straight to the source, they enjoy riding and making videos, but can cut out the competition. The Dudes of Hazzard era pioneered a lo-fi style of content being acceptable and easily produced by anyone, as opposed to using a production company. But it has gone way past that now.”

Bo and Joe

Deciding his own race calendar has worked out well since his son Bo appeared on the scene in March 2019 too. A combination of Covid wrecking the 2020 EWS calendar and his new addition to the family led him to slow down on the foreign racing and concentrate on the UK scene and his content creation.

This year Hope is the headline bike sponsor, with Endura continuing to be among many other companies contributing to the Hazzard Racing team.

“I am a pretty unique setup but they are happy with a balance between racing and filming. They are very flexible; I could make a half hour film that could take four months, or I could make four shorter ones in that time, it is okay. They give me that option without looking over my shoulder.”

They also seem to have the confidence to just let Joe do his thing, without ever being too heavy on their products. The films never dwell on any particular bike or product, they aren’t in any way polished gear-punting advertisements. Instead they sell a lifestyle and the products just ride on his coattails. It works well, and who wouldn’t want to be associated with that?

“The style has just evolved naturally, but at the end of the day it is still just documenting my life. Now it isn’t racing the World Series, but doing more at home.”

His latest films feature Bo learning to pedal, or some extreme riding hung around a night time story read to the wee lad who is already now star of the show. Another follows Joe and long time Dude, Ferg, gravel biking the length of the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland.

“The gravel ride up the Hebrides was something I really wanted to do, to prove to myself I could make a film about something other than thrashing ruts that would still be interesting. We are really happy with it.”

It is another signature Barnes classic, with rough-and-ready self-shot material coming together with some well selected tunes to make an atmosphere-rich story you just have to watch from start to finish. Two lads, two bikes and a whole lot of freedom to adventure – predictably on a ‘camp by the roadside in a £20 tent and eating porridge in bus shelters’ vibe. I confess I don’t have a lot of patience for big-brand product launches or ‘story telling’ videos, but I am glued to the screen on this one, reliving my own past trips that all went the same way.

“I do all the editing and just love it,’ Joe continues, ‘I like how you can have a hundred video clips but there is an infinite way to make them into a film. There is no right or wrong way. But I do think that by doing it loads it will always come out the same way – that is a reflection of me. It is an excellent art form, editing.”

What the future holds

So where from here?

“I want to do more with the designing of things. I already sell my own jerseys but I’m not very good at running a shop, so I get batches in and sell out, then get more in and sell out again. So I am going to do it through Endura, let them run the shop front.”

He seems excited about this possible transition from bike racing personality to graphic designer.

“The jerseys don’t need to be tied to me, the designs should stand by themselves, and that way I suddenly become a graphic designer rather than someone who rides bikes. It is good doing both now though, I am enjoying the balance.”

After the photo session we plod back through a chilly Fort William twilight. Rolling along, Joe casually mentions how he had got fed up placing top ten in the Enduro World Series, never better than 3rd, so it was time to move on to new things. He had reached a ceiling he just couldn’t seem to break through, no matter what he threw at it.

Looking at the pale blue sky above I had a moment to myself, thinking on how it would feel placing top ten in world-class enduro races. It took me to a happy, but wildly unlikely multiverse where I would have been pretty damn pleased with myself. It wasn’t a case that Joe gave up, he simply felt a bit burned out with it and decided his energy would be better spent elsewhere.

I never got the impression Joe seeks race-winning recognition, but just races and rides because it is what he does, who he is. He is Joe Barnes, and the Scottish riding scene would be an immeasurably poorer place without him.

Joe’s Tips for Riding Ruts

There’s no question that Joe can ride a rut with incredible style, so if you want to capture some of his steeze and technique for yourself, here’s his advice:

Let the bike do its thing. If you try to use strength to fight against the bike’s movements then it will make things worse. It’s all about subtle small reactions and letting the bike move about beneath you.

Use your rear brake to balance. Because you can’t countersteer to adjust your lean angle in a rut or rutted corner like in a berm, the easiest way to balance is to adjust your speed.

Generally, in all turns, the faster you go, the more leaned over you need to be, and this remains a constant, so if your speed and lean angle don’t match, then use your brake to balance these two factors. Too fast and not leant enough; then brake to fall more into the turn. Leant over and going slowly; then get off the brake to straighten up! This is the easiest way to consistently ride ruts and rutted turns.

Using too much front brake will cause the front tyre to dig into the side of the rut and pull you over. It is normally terrible advice to use less front brake, but in a rut new rules apply. Use proportionally more rear brake in ruts.