Tears ‘n’ beers and Sunburn: Race Day Fort William 2016

Greg Minnaar, Rachel Atherton and Finn Iles are victorious

What a day, Fort William 2016 was more of an experience than any other that has gone before.

Photos: Seb Schieck, Ben Winder Words: Mike Rose

It was always going to be a slightly odd one. A World Cup race on home soil is always different for the British riders and press. It is pretty much the only time of the year where we can showcase all that is good about the downhill side of mountainbiking here in the UK. But Fort William 2016 was different. Of course there was the racing, but there were other things swirling around in the rarefied Scottish air.

After the tragic death of downhill racer Stevie Smith this was the first time that the World Cup pack and fans had been able to really show their love and support for the great man. We would also witness the incredible Martyn Ashton ride the last section of the track to kick things off. If that wasn’t enough it was also to be Steve Peat’s final appearance at a Fort William World Cup. This northern giant has chosen 2016 to be his final year and Fort William was the best place to get the season-long party really started.

Let’s get to the racing. In case you didn’t know, rather unusually conditions had been great all week long; and this continued, with a dry track and pretty consistent conditions for all. The Junior men’s race was once thought to be a bit a of a sideshow to the main event, but it has really grown into a beast in its own right. There is a really interesting dynamic going on here… without sounding too cheesy, it is really boys becoming men. It pretty much went as expected. Finn Iles is the current favourite but the raft of fast Brits were out to knock him off the top step.

Maximum points for the weekend for Finn Iles

Second place qualifier Charlie Hatton punctured between split one and two, his flapping tyre eventually having to be cut off in order for him to get down the hill. DNF. The current series leader Matt Walker was doing well on the first two splits until he hit the berm after the road gap. His front wheel washed out a little, high-siding him a bit. When his rear wheel hit the berm again the tyre burped and he lost pressure. From there it was an uphill struggle.

Gaetan Vige – yet another fast Frenchie

Jackson Frew put in a solid run for third, and Commencal rider Gaetan Vige was looking almost unbeatable… that is until Iles came down. With a heavily strapped left wrist the young Canadian did it for Chainsaw. With Walker scoring zero pints his three and a half second victory bumped him up into first in the overall rankings.

Second placed qualifier, Charlie Hatton crossing the line on the rim.
A similar story for Matt Walker.

By this point in proceedings the assembled crowd of roughly 10,000 (many still streaming down the hill) had been whipped up into a frenzy by the talented and enthusiastic commentating skills of Dan Jarvis and Toby Parodi. These two characters had almost shouted themselves hoarse… and we had only really just got going!

What more can you say about Rachel Atherton? ACC's records are looking pretty attainable now

There is a lot of background chatter going on at the moment about the state of women’s racing. It has to be said that the depth in talent certainly isn’t there at the moment, either that or that Rachel Atherton is in a league of her own. Of course she can be beaten, but when she is on form she is very hard to catch. It was hers to lose, and with Tahnee Seagrave pulling out with an injury she sustained at the BDS Bala there were only really a couple of riders that could do any damage.

Tahnee on the sideline today, cheering on her fellow competitors and friends.

Tracey Hannah put in a solid run and got a much deserved second place. Manon Carpenter (on home soil too remember) came unstuck and was clearly disappointed and upset. It seems that fatigue struck and that she went off-line just after the second (smaller) wall ride low down on the course. Her run was over, but she managed to gather herself together and still finish in third. She was gutted, just about holding herself together at the finish line. And don’t forget Katy Curd in fourth, a huge relief and reward for all the hard work.

The emotions of a World Cup weekend

Holding it all together under immense pressure is a skill in itself, and Rachel has proven that she can master this. This win, her third consecutive victory in Fort William, was also her ninth consecutive World Cup win, equalling the great Anne Caroline Chausson’s nine back to back wins (in the 1998/99 seasons, and 2000/01 seasons). A win in Leogang next week will put her in a very exclusive club of one!

Rachel Atherton drinking her well earned podium juice.

Racing in your own country is no easy feat, but her 12 second demolition was thorough and decisive. Three from three in 2016 (and the vastness of the winning margins) but she is only 190 points clear of second place Hannah. It sounds a lot, but that is only one missed race and it is game on… but we can’t see that happening. If the rest of the women want to catch up with Rachel Atherton then they need to start make some big changes… and soon.

And on to the men. Whoa… the race. Things really started getting going when Propain Dirt Zelvy rider Phil Atwill hit the hot seat. But before we could really get into the thick of it we had to comprehend the fact that this was Steve Peat’s last ever World Cup race in Fort William. The giant of the sport is hanging up his racing shoes at the end of this season, so this was to be his last appearance in racing colours in Scotland. Twenty-ninth place was no bad way to end it… but the party was only just starting.

There’s only one Steve Peat, but it won’t stop many from trying to emulate him

He was there for a while but he was eventually booted off. Brook MacDonald, then Remi Thirion both went fastest. Connor Fearon was looking good, but he bobbled in the woods and lost time. And then, with 19 riders to go, came Greg Minnaar.

He knows this place well, he won here last year and the course suits him. He has been off-form this year so far (an 18th and a 19th is not usual for him). As we mentioned in the build up to the race, you should never count him out, but no one really saw this coming. It put just under eight seconds into Thirion’s time, which felt like a lifetime.

Never count this man out - especially on the track he's been racing (and winning) on since he was a junior

Riders came and went. Many seemed to be on Greg’s first split time, but this was only one minute into the track. By split two, three and four, riders had drifted and were off the pace. Bryceland was down on time, Mike Jones went down hard, and then Danny Hart (like many) didn’t get the wood section right, losing time and rhythm. Where riders looked a little sketchy or tired Minnaar look smooth and powerful. His run was seemingly perfection with no frills.

Martin Maes was welcomed into the world of elite downhill with this smash on the Visit Scotland sender - he was 5th fastest in sector 1 though

Greenland came down and put in a solid performance that would leave him in eighth. Then something took place that anyone who was there in Fort William will never forget. In a charged and emotional tribute to the late Stevie Smith he was given ‘one last run’ slotted in between Florent Payet and George Gannicott.

The thousands in the crowd fell silent as the TV cameras followed Smith’s ‘ghost run’ down the course. It was so bizarre to be stood in and amongst what was seconds earlier a raging mob that was now silenced. It was both sombre and tranquil at the same time. A moment of reflection and celebration. It was the greatest show of love and affection for one person that I have ever witnessed first hand. The Fort William crowd knows its stuff when it comes to downhill racing, and they knew what the score was here. As the cameras zoomed into the final drop into the arena the crowd went wild. It was such a creative and fitting tribute to a legend of the sport.

I’m not one for emotion, and I only really knew Stevie from a distance, but even I was welling up. It was such a powerful atmosphere, a moment that won’t ever be forgotten. The spirit of chainsaw really does live on.

Minnaar still sat there. He’s been in this position many times before, especially here in Scotland. This was full blooded action. George Brannigan absolutely nailed himself off the jump through the Scotland arch (earlier on Martin Maes had done the same). Greg Williamson put in stormer to finish seventh. The young Luca Shaw was next and he too nailed his run. It is great to see another USA rider sniffing around the podium… sixth.

Greg Williamson tucking his way to a seventh place.

Then we were into the top four: two old hands and two riders not really used to starting with the big dogs. Gwin and Atherton have been here before, but for Adam Brayton and Eddie Masters this was new territory. It has happened before, that riders in this new position have blown-up, wrecking their chances. First up was Brayton, the non-drinking lunatic from the Lakes, the self styled ‘Keswick Kestrel’. He could have thrown it away, he could have ballsed it up… but he didn’t. He kept it steady and kept the power down and momentum going. The crowd was obviously going ballistic by this point. He sat on the hot seat podium in third, just behind Danny Hart and four seconds back from Minnaar. Troy Brosnan was next, but he couldn’t knock him out off.

Second place and his lead in the overall extended – job done for Gwin

Aaron Gwin was always going to be a worry to Minnaar, but it didn’t click for the series leader. He was down in tenth at split 1, but slowly clawed his way back. It looked at one point as if he might be only just making the top five podium, but as it was he slotted into second, and that is where he would stay.

At this stage, with two riders still to go, Brayton still wasn’t guaranteed a podium spot. Rachel Walker (Hope marketing/rider/team manager/friend) was shaking in nervous excitement and shock. She has seen how much work over many, many years Brayton has put into his downhill racing career, and if he could stay on the podium then this would easily be the highlight.

Eddie Masters in practice this morning.

It wasn’t to be for Eddie Masters, his time will come again I am sure. He crashed a couple of times, first up top on what looked like an easy turn. Speaking to Mick Hannah later this was the exact spot where he had crashed in qualifying. He said that a slight gust of wind hit front wheel and that was enough to send him spinning. The second crash was in the new woods. Not too bad in itself, but the hole he fell into was not easy to get out of. We love you Eddie. What this meant was that Brayton was in, top five for sure.

Adam Brayton. Legend. On the Podium.

So Atherton. There is always huge pressure on the home riders, but Gee knows the score, but this time around it was not to be. He crashed in the open upper rocks and it was game over. He carried on to the finish, but it was clear that he had damaged his arm. With the next round in Leogang only a week away lets hope he heals up soon.

Josh Bryceland’s reaction when he heard about Greg Minnaar’s time.

And that was it. The sun was beating, the crowds mental. Minnaar laid a Canadian (chainsaw) flag on the finish line and Peaty bid his farewells. Rachel Atherton, Steve Smith, Martyn Ashton… it really was a fairy tale.

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