A muddy and wild Fort William this year with crashes galore and some unpredictable racing as a result. There was one constant amongst the mayhem though as Greg Minnaar managed to put two consistent and fast runs together in the same day, qualifying 5th in the morning and taking the win as the sun finally came out in the afternoon. So where did Greg find the gaps that gave him a historic 17th World Cup win?
Splitting the difference…
I love Fort William, I’ve made the pilgrimmage most years since I moved to Scotland and have had a great weekend every time but one nerdy criticism I have is that the course has some very odd split time spacings. On a roughly 4m50s course, for evenly sized sectors you’d expect a split about every 1m35s. Instead, we have a first sector of only just over a minute, a final sector made up solely of the final motorway section at about 35-40 seconds and then a huge chunk in the middle of well over 3 minutes. Odd, but in some ways it’s interesting to see how the course chews up riders as they come down to the final sector as I’ll show in a bit. First though, lets start from the start…
The top sector is short, and also very tight in terms of time. Less than 1.2 seconds separated the top 20 at split 1. Saracen team mates Matt Simmonds and Sam Dale took a one-two and there were a few less recogisable names up there at this point in proceedings. Fresh from his 10th place at Lourdes, Rudy Cabirou carried on where he left off with the 5th fastest time at split 1 and Edgar Carballo Gonzalez, whose best World Cup result in 10 years of racing before the weekend was 65th place, was not far behind in 8th.
Being down at split 1 wasn’t a huge disaster though. The tight times and nearly 80% of the course left to race meant there was plenty of scope to pull back time. Greg Minnaar was up there in 6th, 0.4 seconds back but he was the only one of the final podium residents to make it into the top 10 at split 1. Gwin and Atherton were roughly one second back in 14th and 19th respectively while Marcelo Gutierrez Villegas was back in 25th place, 1.5 seconds back and Sam Blenkinsop gave away 2.2 seconds and was sitting in 44th place!
Sector 2 was the longest chunk of the race by far and so it’s no surprise that those that did well in the dank, dark, muddy woods of the middle section did well overall and those that appeared onto lower slopes covered in tell tale mud lost out. The top five riders on Sector 2 were ultimately the top 5 overall. Aaron Gwin was fastest but Greg Minnaar was only one hundredth of a second behind in second place. Behind them the time gaps started to lengthen. Gee Atherton was 2.35 seconds slower than Gwin in third, and Gutierrez Villegas was 2.6 seconds back in fourth place. Sam Blenkinsop was the only other rider within 4 seconds of Gwin and Minaar in the middle section.
This meant that overall at split 2 Greg Minnaar went ito the lead in front of Aaron Gwin, the only difference being Minnaar’s faster top sector. Atherton was in third place at split 2, just in front of Gutierrez Villegas, while Troy Brosnan rounded out the podium places going into the final motorway section.
Crashes for Matt Simmonds and Sam Dale had dropped them out of contention but a few other notable names climbed up the leaderboard with a strong sector 2. Danny Hart managed to overcome a nasty practice crash and only 31st fastest at split 1 to ride himself up to 8th place and George Brannigan posted the 6th fastest sector 2 time to move up to 7th overall at split 2 having been 42nd at split 1.
Sector 3 at Fort William always puzzles me. It’s so short and seemingly pretty straightforward for riders with the skills and speed to be at the top of the World Cup game, but every year the amount of change in the results is always surprising for a 35 second stretch of track. While the gap from 1st to 20th in sector 1 was only 1.152 seconds on a 1 minute 2 second section, the gap between 1st and 20th on the 35 second motorway stretch at the bottom of the course was 1.732 seconds – almost double the gap on a section about half the length in time!
Sam Dale’s day was ruined by a crash in the middle section but he followed up his second fastest sector 1 with the fastest sector 3 to defend his title as the king of the motorway – he was fastest on this section last year as well. The main beneficiaries wth the power and strength still left over this year were Sam Blenkinsop and Marcelo Gutierrez Villegas. They went third and sixth fastest overall but crucially, Gee Atherton and Troy Brosnan only went 26th and 27th fastest respecitvely, both down by about 2.1 seconds on Sam Dale’s fastest time. This meant that Gutierrez Villegas leapfrogged Atherton up to third place and Blenkinsop displaced last year’s winner Tory Brosnan on the podium.
At the very top of the rankings, Greg Minnaar took 0.6 seconds out of Aaron Gwin to seal his 17th World Cup win and draw level with Steve Peat in the all time World Cup list.
Loic Bruni also managed to salvage a few more points after a crash in the middle section. His fifth fastest time on the sector moved him above Hart, Brannigan and Luca Shaw to 7th at the finish. Danny Hart and George Brannigan lost out on the pedalling of the motorway section with only the 41st and 43rd fastest times respectively. Although neither was fast overall, the slight advantage Hart made over Brannigan was enough to keep him in 8th place as Brannigan dropped down from 7th to 9th.
Wrapping it all up
So where was it won and lost? It’s interesting to see how the relentless nature of the Fort William course sorts the men from the boys by the end of the course. The 20th fastest time at sector 1 was only 1.8% slower than the fastest but in the final sector the gap between 1st and 20th was nearly 5%. This on a relatively smooth part of the track but by this point the rest of the course had clearly taken it’s toll on the riders. This is a clear demonstration of how hard on bikes and bodies this track is.
Quite how important the long middle section was can be seen in the performance of three riders. Sam Dale was 2nd fastest in sector 1 and fastest in sector 3 but he lost 18 seconds in crash in sector 2 to end any challenge for the top spots. In contrast, Danny Hart and George Brannigan were a mirror image of Dale. Hart’s rankings for the three sectors read 31st, 8th, 41st and for Brannigan it was 42nd, 6th, 43rd. The sheer length of sector 2 meant that these two made up for their shortcomings in sectors 1 and 3 to take 8th and 9th overall.
Having said that, the exception that proved the rule was the battle for the win. Gwin and Minnaar laid down almost identical times for sector 2 meaning that the deciding factor was half a second in sector 1 and 0.6 seconds in sector 3 that gave Minnaar the winning 1.1 second advantage.
So Minnaar takes his 17th career World Cup win and Aaron Gwin takes the overall lead and looks ominously consistent so far this year. As always, there’s much talk of the young guns coming through, but once again the wily old hands with the experience and race knowledge have triumphed. The relatively straightforward Leogang track generally results in vey tight times but back to back World Cup races will mean those battered and bruised this weekend will have less time to put themselves back together. Here’s looking forward to next weekend!