Fort William is such an institution on the World Stage. Every year it brings a blend of brutality and speed that is hard to find elsewhere. Speed is on offer in other places, for sure, but not many places on the calendar combine so many different elements. Throw in 'the woods', a name guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened World Cup rider on a wet weekend, and you have the recipe for a classic. The only place which comes close is Mont Saint Anne but that doesn't have the steepness, nor the same propensity for carnage as its Scottish cousin manages.
In its current guise it's sometimes hard to gauge the change in the course on Aonach Mor over the last eighteen years of world level racing. However, if you can cast your minds back to that first race in 2002 you're reminded of just how much things have moved forward. Even in those early days the course gained a reputation almost instantly as a destroyer and legend maker in equal measure and its a reputation that continues until this day. The weather this weekend was wetter than an otter's pocket and the light about as minimal, with wind, cloud, mist and monsoon like rain for riders to contend with. The river jump certainly had a bit of added risk to it once the usual stream had expanded to a raging torrent in spate and jumping became by far the easiest option to cross it! Photographers got wet, as did spectators, and cameras got wetter. But the show goes on while the riders are on track so here's a selection of the successes, failures and those who were oh so close. Enjoy!
And sixty seconds later her 2019 World Cup dreams were over. Tahnee is talented, she’s quick, and this year she seemed on form and poised to really take the fight to Rachel. Yet while Fort William can become the maker of legends, it’s more often the destroyer of dreams. Down so quickly in the weekend it’s simply bad luck but by this point several other riders were already down and out too. Rumours are that it wasn’t a collarbone but instead a torn AC joint so it looks like she could be out for a good few races. Here’s hoping she comes back quickly and strongly for some more battles with Rachel.
Athertons Limited. To set up your own bike company is one thing but to do that while racing and competing on the world stage is another thing entirely. It has been done, Christian Taillefer and Nicolas Vouilloz being the main examples. But in a year where investing in your own team kicked up a notch with Aaron Gwin doing the deal with Intense Racing, the Athertons stepped into the fold by investing in the company itself. The bikes are evolving from their early days as Robot Bike Co, and they’re proving there’s plenty of performance in them.
Reece Wilson had a breakout result here last year with a 5th place, matching the previous best ever result by a Scot at a World Cup. After going 4th in qualifying all eyes were on him and the pressure was on to hold it together come Sunday. But within seconds you knew it was all over when he started looking down at his drivetrain when he should have been pedalling hard, a dropped chain the cause. Some races have been won without a chain but not this one, not when you need to get on the gas at regular intervals. A crash in the woods served to add further insult to injury but there will be other years and the borders lad will be back to make amends.
Gwin's weekend went from bad to worse. First strike was going out to his van in Edinburgh on Tuesday morning to discover his race bike had been another victim to the Edinburgh bike theft epidemic. Next up was tweaking his already bad ankle before qualifying. But they say that bad things happen in three and he sure knows how to attract them. Dropping out the start gate he was a man on a mission but before he even left sight of the top lift station he’d clipped something and BAM, he was down so hard you felt the earth move in the finish arena! But fair play, he’s built tough and got back up quickly even if it was only to push his bike back up the hill for a ride down in the gondola. Check out the spray of latex from his back tyre in the Red Bull coverage for why.
Veronika Widmann is the current Italian national champion but doesn’t yet have many World Cup podiums to her name, her first being in Val di Sole last year. Despite looking like she had a bit of a mare in the woods going by that particular split she held it together and had enough in hand to secure fifth place.
Wyn Masters has that old school style reminiscent of Kovarik and Rennie. Flat out, a bit lairy and just plain old gnarly. Throw in the ability to pull a manual for any occasion and you have a firm crowd favourite who always seems to be firmly on for a result in the top half of the field. This weekend wasn’t one to write home about with 54th after just failing to put it together on the day.
After taking his maiden senior World Cup win here last year Amaury Pierron loves Fort William. And after qualifying 2nd fastest he was clearly looking to go one better on Sunday. With plenty of competition the pressure was on but as he came down he was up everywhere which whipped the awaiting crowd into a frenzy. Could he make it a double? Only Minnaar has won two in a row before but the Frenchman has the ability, would he have the luck. Bursting into view over the Scotland arch he looked quick, and he looked sure to take it. But as he hit the last jump the front wheel dropped, the crowd took an intake of breath and it looked like he was about to take a big OTB. Was he about to win a race without the bike? No, he made it. But with what a margin on the clock.
Adam Brayton went down hard in the run through pinball on Saturday. Yet still he made it through the pain to qualify in 35th place, safely in for Sunday. But after needing help getting dressed on Sunday you knew it would only ever be damage limitation in the final and 33rd place, while good, is still not a good indicator of what the Cumbrian is capable of.
Greg Williamson is the local lad and it shows for the crowd always save their best for the Scots. He crashed out last year to the disappointment of many but 12th this year was a solid result and one which delighted the locals but none more so than his mechanic Jesse!
Greg Minnaar is a living legend in Fort William, the seven times winner here always being a good shout if you fancy laying some money down at the bookies. Last year didn’t go his way when he was out with a broken arm before racing even started, a training day putting paid to his dreams of the top step of any podiums for several rounds. And 2019 didn’t start much better after puncturing during qualifying in Maribor and not making the final for the first time in over twenty years. We all knew he’d be out for blood in Fort William but with fickle conditions and a track which can bite anyone made everyone well aware that it wouldn’t necessarily be his choice. A result in the finals of 6th isn’t what he’ll have been hoping for but it’s a result in the books and something to build on during the rest of the season.
Finn Iles is young, hungry and stylish. And fast. He pretty much cleared up in his junior World Cup years, and while he’s yet to stand on the top step of the senior race he’s close. Very close. In 4th he was 3.5 seconds down, the same amount of time that separated the top three but that belies the opportunity he no doubt senses in the season.
It's always hard when you cross the line and feel there was juice left in the tank, or that you left time in certain corners. Joe Smith rued mistakes made on Saturday but despite going faster on Sunday he dropped from 36th in qualifying to 51st in the race. Some weekends just don't go to plan.
With a wild weekend forecast there was surely money to be made on Danny. Who else can lay down lines in the wet like the Redcar Rocket? After taking 2nd in Maribor there were definitely thoughts of a home win on the crowd’s mind. It says a lot for the level of expectation on a man when 5th is seen as a disappointment!
Eddie Masters has not had a good run of luck at this place but 10th on the day must feel pretty sweet, particularly as he edged his team mate out into 11th.
Loris Vergier. From arriving with the number 41 board to taking the fastest qualifier is some jump but sadly Loris just wasn’t able to make it stick and had to settle for third come Sunday. Still, a podium is a podium and his race number at Leogang will certainly be a little better.
So, so close. Tracey Hannah won here two years ago but that was without Rachel on the start line. You have to wonder what might have been had Tahnee also been in the mix this weekend. Would Rachel have stepped it up further, or would she have made a mistake under pressure from her two rivals? The 1.5 seconds that separated Tracey from Rachel on the top step was not a big margin to overcome on track and goes to show that even with Tahnee out for the short to medium term, Rachel might not have it all her own way.
Rachel Atherton is just unbeatable when you look back at her career. She’s not always been the best, she’s not always been the luckiest and has definitely suffered her fair share of injuries. This year the luck definitely swung her way although that sadly meant the crowds were denied the battle they were hoping for in Seagrave vs Atherton on home soil. It’s hard to comprehend that this was Rachel’s 38th World Cup win, but possibly the most poignant for her is that it will have been done on a bike bearing her name on the downtube for the first time.
Where Adam Brayton and others went, Gee followed. Landing in the monster hole through Pinball on Saturday his hand slipped from the bar and his bike tried to carry on without him. Down, but definitely not out for Sunday. A rider of Gee Atherton’s ability won’t be happy with 21st on the day when he won here in 2013 but injuries, bad luck and the next generation snapping at your heels take heed of no man.
Mikayla lives and works in the shadow of Aonach Mor, a more prominent hill to mountain bikers than the larger Ben Nevis that it lies beside. Yet despite growing up within spitting distance she was a relative newcomer to the sport, taking it up a few short years ago but already proving talented and quick. While it must sting to miss out on qualifying by the 0.7s that she did, it must also be heartening to know that you have the pace to mix it with the best.
It’s been a while since Sick Mick took a win, much less a podium, but he’s still great to watch. Weather, illness and just not feeling it on the day can ruin a weekend and this was just one of those weekends for the Aussie.
Black, black and more black. When will kit manufacturers make decent waterproof kit that doesn’t look like a bin bag? Mark Wallace doing his best here to stay dry on a dreich Scottish summer day.
The sickening crunch when Loic hit the deck on Hip Replacement in qualifying was chilling. His front wheel had drifted and started to tuck on the run into the take off, enough for him to unclip his inside pedal. And once in the air it went from bad to worse. As a protected rider he cruised down, hoping that he would be fit for Sunday. He was but a combination of conditions and just not having it in the tank up top put paid to his podium hopes and left him to settle for 8th. Still, while he lost the number 1 board this weekend he still goes to Leogang in the top 3 which must soften the blow a little.
As a first year senior, Latvian Paula Zibasa is currently on the hunt to make the finals for the first time in 2019 after podiuming here last year in the junior field.
Adam Rojcek came into the weekend with the 16 board, a good number to have in any World Level sport. Qualifying 40th was a good and solid result, no heroics but equally in with a good enough margin. Unfortunately the rocks here have the nasty tendency to bite like an angry piranha and during Sunday morning training, the Slovakian found this to his cost when he went down and hurt his arm. Hopefully we’ll see him back in action at Leogang.
Laurie Greenland admitted to a ‘couple of mistakes’ but in reality 15th is solid if not as good as his past couple of top-10’s. Leogang’s up next though and after a podium there in 2018 there’ll be hopes of similar results on his mind.
Life can be a struggle at the back. Sure, the World Cup is great if you’re on a big team with a massive pit and some mechanics to look after you. Privateers usually exist from whatever they could fit in their bike bags, their only shelter a hire car from the airport. That might be fine when it’s a dry day and nothing goes wrong but once the heavens open and the midges come out you won’t be enjoying yourself quite so much, particularly if you throw a few mechanicals in for good measure. Jonas Bernet is one of those guys. Keen to make it and giving it their all to succeed.
Jack Reading reckoned he was hit by a gust up top in his run. With the gusting winds and being so far off the pace on a section of track he’s normally flat out on we would have to agree. Still, he did manage to drag the beast by the scruff of the neck and haul it into 38th by the line.
Bernard Kerr made a good impact here this weekend. As you get further up the results the fight for each place gets tougher and 11th is not only hard won but one of his best World Cup results to date.
The French always have some fast riders, and their ranks of juniors seem particularly quick right now. Antoine Vidal qualified 6th (in Juniors) on his first trip here this weekend and while he didn’t quite match that result in the finals on Sunday he will still be one to watch for the rest of the season. Amaury may be leading the charge but you can bet your bottom dollar that the younger French riders will be following closely behind.
The lack of qualifying points on offer in the UK and the top 60 have definitely taken effect on the number of Brits at the race. But Katy Curd continues to be a regular. It wasn’t a vintage year for her after not having a good run through the woods in qualifying and then just having an utter mare in the race.
Until next year!