Fort William, the World Cup venue that always produces the goods. From the very first race held here back in 2002 which saw Chrris Kovarik lay down his legendary foot out flat out run to take the win from Cedric Gracia and Nathan Rennie, through to Greg Minnaar making it his own with seven wins across three wheel sizes.
But with Greg having gone down in training earlier in the week, it was an open race. Sure, Gwin could easily be the favourite tip of many, particularly with the No.1 plate, but would he be able to tame the beast? Luck hasn't been on his side here in the past, and even when things have gone his way he's only won the event once and that was back in 2012, a lifetime ago at the top level. Would Fort William's 17th year prove to be a fine vintage as so many others have become before it?
George Gannicott isn't a name many have heard of outside the UK, but he's quick, talented, and his home is arguably one of Europe's best enduro riding spots; the Tweed Valley in the heart of the Scottish Borders. It's an area which has already given us so many riders who have and still do compete on the world stage across all MTB disciplines, as well as a Junior DH World Champion in Ruaridh Cunningham. But George is a downhiller through and through. He may have been battling a cold all weekend and been riding while dosed up on Paracetamol to keep the worst at bay, but he still pushed it hard to the line with a top 40. That's no mean feat even when you're on form and now he goes into Leogang with a career-best number 41 race plate.
Another Brit, this time Jack Reading. Jack isn't a full time rider, and has to juggle the multiple balls of training, racing and running the One Vision team alongside his ‘real' job of being an optometrist. And he's far from the only one regularly racing who has to do this. 37th isn't where he wanted to end up this weekend but it is at least a solid result in the bag after the race to forget in Losinj where he crashed in qualifying and failed to make the finals cut for the first time since 2015. Racing at the top level is hard, and while all the show and shine of a World Cup is the most visible part, it's the culmination of years of effort and heartache that are the most important part of getting there.
Dean Lucas went into this race as one of the outsiders who was in with a chance of the top step come Sunday. But he didn't make it past Friday. As the track has matured over the last twenty years it's become more predictable with fewer holes (usually) appearing throughout the weekend. While this has reduced the volume of crashes it's definitely upped the stakes when things do go wrong. Dean went down hard in one of the fastest sections on Friday and was out cold for longer than anyone would want to be. While in years gone by it may have been shaken off, some painkillers necked, and duly ignored until Monday morning when racing was finished, thankfully attitudes to head injuries are changing and the decision was taken to sit this one out. He'll be back in Leogang with a point to prove for sure.
Aaron Gwin is definitely a crowd favourite and gets a lot of attention from fans on course. But you have to wonder if he doesn't wish he could convert that attention into a winning run here. A slow puncture in Qualifying netted him third which left him on the back foot for Sunday. Last year the woods proved the undoing of many riders, luck rather than ability seeming to be the biggest factor in a safe passage through them and there was a lot of flak given for this (justifiably in the eyes of many).
This year saw the mud and roots disappear, replaced by a mosaic of crazy paving. And still, riders went down. Gwin entered the woods with a near two-second margin and exited them with a bloody face. Game over but still with enough points to keep the leader's jersey going into the next round.
Danny Hart has had four podiums here over the years but not yet managed to convert any to a win, even in 2016 when he was in the form of his life. With a 2nd place in qualifying and Gwin already out of it, the crowd were expectant and went wild in the arena once the northern pocket rocket was on track. Down at the first split but that's okay, it must have been a slip, he can pull that back. S**t, down at the second too. Maybe a problem, but it's okay, he'll still be able to hold it together. Third split and he's down further. He'll be fighting to stay on the podium at this rate. Across the line in sixth, just two tenths off the last podium spot but still to a crowd eruption. The British crowds really are like no other, particularly for their own, and they felt Danny's disappointment and with it, the loss of a chance for another British winner to be scratched on the wall.
Rachel is the real deal and with 34 World Cup wins has defined women's racing for this generation just as Anne-Caroline Chausson did the generation before. Going fastest in qualifying it never really looked in doubt that she'd walk away from Fort William with another win, even with Myriam Nicole just a few seconds behind her on Saturday. But on Sunday those thoughts quickly turned sour. Snapping a chain out the gate with just her second pedal stroke turned a would-be win into damage limitation. But when damage limitation amounts to third place on a track where pedalling definitely makes a significant difference, you're doing alright.
And as for Myriam ‘Pompon' Nicole, the first round winner you'd put money on for being able to capitalise on Rachel's misfortune, she also had a run to forget, sliding out just before the crazy paving of the revamped woods. This only ever left one rider who could possibly take the top step...
That one rider was Tahnee Seagrave. The FMD rider may have grown up in the French resort of Morzine but the Fort William event is her home round and one she's been keen to win for a long time.
Finally, a home win, and in doing so adding her name to the list of British girls who've won Fort William. It's a pretty elite club.
Will patriotism be forgiven in this? Scotland is a fiercely proud nation but one which punches well above its weight on the international stage in any number of categories from sport to science. And when one of our own do well we celebrate them by partying hard. Rest assured that many drinks will have been poured for Reece Wilson on Sunday night. Fourth place was an outstanding result for the Native, whose prior best Elite result was 11th here last year.
In his result here he matches Stu Thomson for equal best Scottish result at a World Cup (Stu took 4th at Grouse Mountain in 2003) and becomes the first to stand on a World Cup podium. His stocks with Commencal have got to have gone up in value. Get in lad!
Brook Macdonald is an animal. Back on it just five weeks after breaking his collarbone in Losinj at the first round he took eleventh place in the Fort.
The changing of the guard. Of the five riders stood on the podium, all were under the age of 25 and three of them were just 22. Contrast that to Greg Minnaar who won his first world championship title as a Junior back in 1999, his first race here all the way back in 2004, and is still going strong!
Coming into Fort William Amaury Pierron wasn't even a protected rider and had only one previous Elite top three finish to his name from Leogang way back in 2014. Yet he leaves Fort William now as a World Cup winner. What a way to mix things up, particularly on a track as unforgiving as this Scottish monster.
In real-world terms, it isn't that long since Gee last stood on the podium at a World Cup but you have to go back to April 2016 to find him even inside the top ten. And like dog years, in the mountain bike world that's a lifetime. A fifteenth place here is solid after an injury plagued 2017 but in what has been a lengthy and solid career he'll be looking to turn things around for the rest of the season to get himself back up to where he should be.
While 29" wheels may roll faster than 27.5" they only do that if they have air in them. With the extra diameter comes extra weight if you're using like for like tyres. This has seen teams instead choosing lighter, folding tyres, and with this comes an increased risk of catastrophic sudden air loss… or in other words, punctures. Luca Shaw was looking hot coming into the weekend, and after taking the fastest time in qualifying it seemed like he'd be on it come finals time on Sunday. But rocks are rocks and despite being fastest at the first split, either a bad line choice or a rock pulled out after the torrential rain of Saturday night ended his charge further down the mountain. This left his team mate to fly the Syndicate flag with a brilliant second place. Some say it's the 29" wheels that made the podium here but with three Frenchmen up there, maybe it's just something in the wine?
Sam Hill proved to the world that a good downhiller can smash it in the enduro world and Martin Maes is proof that the reverse is true. What does this mean? A great rider is a great rider no matter their chosen discipline or bike! Martin had ridden a big bike the sum total of once in the previous twelve months going into the weekend, his last international downhill race being the Worlds back in 2016, and yet walked away with ninth place. Talent is talent folks.
Kade Edwards is one of the most stylish riders out there. Every time he hits the track and sees a jump you just know he's going to aim for the sky with more shape than 90% of the field combined can manage. The British Junior rounded out a solid weekend with third spot in Juniors.
More steeze than you can shake a stick at.
Troy, the old man of the race. Who thought going into the weekend that we could say that statement without irony? At 24, Brosnan was the oldest to be stood on the podium this weekend, and just three tenths out from the win. Racing at the top is tight and no mistake goes unpunished. How many barely discernible moments contributed to that difference? The curse of the racer in all these guys is that for everyone who doesn't win, you're always left wishing for that little bit more, even if you did have that ‘perfect run'.
Another British privateer who gives their all to racing and has done so for many years. Emyr Davies has, like so many others, always been a will he/won't he rider when it came to qualifying. Times are tight throughout the field and it's always a fight to stay involved throughout the weekend to get into the Sunday finals. With the increase in UCI points required the job of even getting into the World Cups has become harder and harder, but with the qualifying having been cut from the top 80 to top 60, the game just got harder still. Will it be to the benefit of the sport, or does it just increase the elitism, cutting privateer numbers who give it their all already to compete at the highest with little hope of reward? The jury's out on this one. For Ems, qualifying wasn't to be and the Welshman was left to focus on web coverage come Sunday.
It's only practice but that can lead to some marked speed differences between riders. Italian junior Hannes Albar goes for the pass on Scottish Junior Cairn Bell with style on the motorway.
Out of Juniors for the first time in 2018, qualifying now counts a lot more for Kaos Seagrave. Small mistakes and a day of not being on it punish harshly, no matter what style you throw down on the jumps.
Even in previous years with the top 80 going through it would have been a squeaky time watching the last riders come down for Kaos but this year, with only the top 60 getting through to Sunday, 74th in qualifying just wasn't good enough.
Wyn is lairy, stylish, and dependable for a solid result. And of course, he can wheelie for days which perhaps contributes to just how many spectators watch out for him. With the fan cheering in the arena you'd be forgiven for thinking he was local. A less than brilliant first split ultimately hampered his charge but 36th on the day isn't a bad result when you consider that on average the ten-second deficit to Amaury amounts to just three tenths between each rider across the top 40 on a near five-minute course. Has it been mentioned that times at this level are tight?
Marcelo Gutierrez Villegas always looks pinned, everywhere. Eyes on the prize as always and a solid top ten finisher, the Colombian took eighth here.
First World Cup season, first win. Okay, it may have been in the Junior rather than Elite category but the track was the same, the conditions the same, and Kye A'Hern's time would have placed him 27th in the senior field. Something says that with two podiums from two Kye is definitely one to watch both now and for the future.
After winning here in 2017 you can be assured that Tracey Hannah will have been coveting the top step once again. To do that though needs the perfect run even when two of your competitors have issues and while devoid of crashes or mechanicals, Tracey just didn't have the gas in the tank to take the fight to Tahnee.
Fifth place on the day but Tracey will bounce back for Leogang.
The difference between fifth and thirteenth? Just over a second. Which left Connor Fearon to mull over where he could have made up the difference. After looking quick all through practice and qualifying in seventh he was disappointed but philosophical.
So there you have it, yet another vintage year. Two new winners, one taking a World Cup win for the first time ever, and a sizeable shake-up of the remaining positions. The weather could have so easily played a part in this shake-up but while it shook some riders as they struggled on Sunday morning post-rain, it wasn't the ultimate factor behind the results as they were instead all rider and mechanical influenced.
Of the top 20 ranked riders going into the weekend, 45% failed to finish in the top 20 and that made for an electric race for fans. Will Leogang continue with the shake-up?