Full race report and amazing photos from round #3 of the UCI World Cup at Fort William, Scotland.
Photos: Ian MacLennan
Words: Alasdair MacLennan
Fort William. Outdoor capital of the UK, home of the World Cup and of course, home to midges. Out in force, they drive people to the edge of distraction. At least at the top of the mountain the downhillers can at least get their goggles on without being invaded by midges but there is no such luxury for the 4xers, for them it’s standing in a cloud of the buggers without respite. It seems to be a theme that two of the most notorious tracks, here and Mont Sainte Anne, are clouded in biting insects. Maybe it’s the midges and mosquitos which make them such a challenge rather than what’s between the Shimano tape?
Friday this year was pretty quiet, with the XC having long since moved out and the 4x no longer being official World Cup territory. All day practice leaves no shortage of track time in which to get the bike and your body dialled in to the far smoother yet never forgiving terrain. It’s not as balls to the wall as some of this year’s venues but the fine shingle which litters the surface bites as soon as you move a little off the main line, with many big name riders bitten. But that’s part and parcel of what racing here is about. Plain and simple flat out, if not totally foot out.
Greg Williamson can almost be considered local, living just half an hour away. 24th in qualifying was an amazing result for the lad.
There have been some changes to the track each race over the past few years and this one is no exception. The old motorway is gone, and in its place from the Hip Replacement down is a sequence of jumps, the M82, similar to those seen in South Africa. Big ol’ tabletops, and lots of them. Get them good and you’re laughing, getting the speed from each downslope, but get them wrong and you’ll be kicking yourself as time haemorrhages away and leaves you contemplating a Sunday on the sidelines. Remi Thirion hit the biggest of the tabletops in qualifying and landed with more than a little weight on the nose, which is the trouble on jumps this size, if it starts to go wrong near the moment your wheels leave the lip there’s a lot of time to contemplate how you’re going to crash. It was saved though and with it, a top twenty position going into Sunday afternoon just nine seconds back from Marc Beaumont in first place.
Danny Hart kickstarted his season here last year and has been looking quick and smooth as we’ve come to expect. A small tumble on Saturday didn’t seem to knock his confidence any.
Of the 193 men fighting for places in the final qualifying was always going to be tight, especially with a cut off just over twenty two seconds back from first placed Marc. In fact the top trio were from the home isle after qualifying, Marc, Gee & Danny separated by less than two seconds, Rachel leading the women. Forty six Brits were fighting it out for the final, a huge number even taking into consideration that it’s their home race. Many of these were also the up and coming; first and second year Junior riders who’ve been fighting it out at the World Cups for experience, trying to make the cut for a final slot on Sunday. But it’s hard, be under no illusions of that, it’s very hard. Times are massively close, mistakes heavily punished. Gone are the days when you can have a sketchy run, a bit steady, and still qualify. Unless you’re in the top ten or twenty there are such fine margins between riders that a simple slip renders a weekend written off, disappointment chewing away at you until the next round, firing you up for better times.
Brook Macdonald going down hard high up on the hill.
Greg Minnaar is always a safe bet when it comes to the overall. Despite missing out in ’10 by the slimmest of margins, and then again in ’11, he’s fighting tooth and nail with Gwin this year. Looks like it may be another tight one come Norway.
Greg Williamson rode well in South Africa but didn’t pull it together in Val di Sole last weekend, finishing well beyond where he should be inside the top eighty. That’s all forgotten about now though with a 24th place in qualifying. Disappointment for Brayton though, a snapped chain high up on Aonach Mor leaving him just 1.1s off the pace needed for qualifying and in 86th place, an impressive feat without means of drive for the final stages. Of course all of this is only the precursor to Sunday, if you’re in, you’re in. And that’s all that matters. You can breathe easy, rest, and concentrate solely on Sunday. And those Sunday stats for the Brits look good with twenty four guys making it through. Despite missing Manon Carpenter in the women’s race after her collarbone break in VDS last weekend, there are still six Brits in the final from the twenty places available too.
Jared Graves is back on the downhill scene and looking fast.
8th place in qualifying, Josh ‘Miami Bryce’ Bryceland getting all moto on the power from one of the many loose corners on track.
Time ticks, the noise begins to grow, the cheering becoming manic. Then, in your head, silence. You concentrate on nothing more than the clock, wait for the beeps, for the display to go green. Your heart rate already elevated, it’s green, you explode forward and it heightens further. You’d think that the top section would be easy, no stress & no challenge given it’s rather trail centre look of smooth gravel and wide bridges. But that would be to reckon without the Fort William effect, especially in the dry with loose dust just millimetres off line. Underestimate the top at your peril. Gwin went down twice on Saturday which put him down in twenty ninth place, losing potentially crucial points against Minnaar. Peaty also went down hard in a last practice run following the South African which left him with a possible, and later confirmed, torn hamstring. Protected status means he still starts finals if he’s feeling up to it, despite the lack of qualifying time.
With weather threatening all weekend, yet staying just the right side of sunny, all it took was a little drop of the mercury and the rain started to fall from the dark clouds. Rain, the last thing you want on a long and exposed track but it doesn’t affect the track as much as you might think. Bryceland said after practice “There’s loads of grip still, it’s rolling a little slower but the grips there”. Sunday’s always a little quiet with practice runs, most riders opting for a couple to sharpen themselves up but stopping before blowing up. It’s a fine line between knowing the track technically, and being strong enough to still perform well in your final run.
Sam Hill, all dressed up and once again rocking the colours to raise awareness and money for Cancer Research, look out for the kit and bike on eBay soon!
The women may have seen one 2012 podiumer missing with injury but the podium was still wide open with a number of riders capable of taking the three spots. Would five times winner Tracy Moseley be able to improve on her seventh in qualifying? This is despite not actually racing World Cups officially this year, instead concentrating on Enduro. After qualifying the favourite was clearly Rachel Atherton with a near ten second lead over Myriam Nicole in second but that began to look doubtful going into final runs. Going down hard in practice this morning she hurt her hand, never a positive sign on a track that punishes your hands so greatly.
US National Champion Jill Kintner always looks sharp on track when rocking the Stars and Stripes.
With the clock ticking and the rain taking a break, it was time to go racing. Tracy Moseley did improve but not by the margin required and dropped into fifth place while Floriane Pugin took fourth. In third was Myriam Nicole, Pom Pom, three seconds up on Floriane, but eight seconds down on second place. And who was there? Well unluckily for Rachel, despite being fastest at the first split she hadn’t quite managed to hold onto Saturday’s commanding lead and so she dropped in behind Emmeline Ragot, just under over a second down.
Emmeline Ragot, 2012 women’s winner!
Rachel Atherton was looking like the win was hers for the taking but a crash in practice saw her pick up a hand injury which made things hard going into the finals.
By the time the men started the track was really beginning to change, with stories of the ride to the first split being horrendously hard work. And then there were the woods. Scotty Mears had a disappointing run after crashing and giving himself a dead leg in his last practice run which made the slog down the M82 all the harder. The story from that run was of a huge rut through the woods that tried to take your wheels away and put you out of action. Graves went down here and he was by no means the only one to lose time in the mud. Greg Williamson had the best qualifying run of his career to 24th on Saturday and went better on Sunday as the first rider to break the five minute barrier. And then it was Gwin, crossing the line in 4:48 which looked good but was it going to be good enough to hold onto the hotseat after Marc crossed the line?
Marc Beaumont is no adopted Atherton on the GT team and to suggest he is is to do him a massive disservice. He’s an outstanding rider, has won World Cups previously, and stamped his mark on the 2012 Fort William World Cup early on by taking the win in seeding from Gee but today it wasn’t to be.
Mick was the first of the real contenders to Gwin’s time, Leov having had problems that pushed him outside the five minute mark. Just a tenth down at the first split, Mick was on for it but by the time he hit the final split that deficit had turned to ten seconds. He was out, giving Sam Dale a guaranteed top fifteen. Brook had problems up on the hill which left him nothing more to do that style it up on the M82 for the crowd. Pinkbike was on hand when Josh picked up his custom engraved Miami Burgtec pedals for race day. Hitting the final split just over four seconds down the potential was there for a great result. 4:53, he dropped into second just behind Arron. Hill next, with rain returning, two seconds faster than Miami. The times are dropping and getting closer to the Gwin’s ’48. Minnaar. 4.9s down on Gwin’s final split, how much can he pull back on the motorway? Nothing, he loses another second, and in doing so drops in behind Josh for fourth (when he crossed the line). It was then Blenkinsop’s turn, but again, close but no cigar. Steve Smith only just scrapes a sub five minute run and then bang, Hart’s up at the first split but is down at the second and doesn’t quite pull back what he lost in the mid-sector, dropping into a provisional second behind Gwin. Gee’s half a second up at split one, can he do it? Losing time in the middle, he pulls time back on the M82 for third place. Mechanicals are a plague that hit the best and this weekend it was the turn of Beaumont. So the final results: Gwin took the win from Hart in second, replicating his result from 2011. Gee took third with Hill in fourth and Josh in fifth.
No race report is complete without a picture of Gwin, the clear man of the moment. He crashed twice in Saturday’s seeding but put in a storming finals run of 4:48. At times it didn’t look like he would hold it but hold out he did and the win was his.