Fort William Downhill Recap
Words and Photos: Colin Meagher
Fort William is a monster of a track and the new additions have done nothing but improve on a classic track that’s been a fixture on the circuit now for nine years.
The fans at Fort William are like nowhere else in the world. Look for next year's tenth anniversary of Fort WIlliam to be a wild one.
The big news here at Fort William was Sam Hill’s training crash on Friday, injuring his shoulder. Rolling the dice on feeling good enough for a finals run, the Monster Specialized rider started during qualifying and then deliberately DNF’d shortly into his run, allowing him to take a start in the final as a top 20 protected rider. Hill rolled the track once in practice before the final and threw in the towel on racing Fort William. Best wishes to Sam on a speedy recovery.
Steve Smith of MS-Evil charging the upper section during the qualifying race on Saturday. Smith took fifteenth in qualifying, but had a costly off the bike mistake in the woods during finals that pushed him to sixty fourth.
Mitch Delfs dropping into the rocks aboard his Pivot Phoenix. The new bikes are riding "SWEET!" according to Kyle Strait and Delfs.
Duncan Riffle railing a nearly 180 turn somewhere below the upper rock gardens and the sheep gate that leads riders into the woods. Riffle had a so-so qualifying race, coming home in fourty fifth, but moved up seven spots in the Finals.
Always stylish, CG rails a berm en route to qualifying twenty-eighth.
The tale of the track this week was flats, destroyed wheels, and shredded tires.
All the result of the square edged rocks that the new track revealed all week as riders evolved the track during training runs.
It's 9 am, and Mick Hannah is already loosening up a bit on his trainer, getting ready for his customary two training runs to do a final check of the track before committing to his lines for the Final.
The ladies: Rachel is back and was wanting to add a bit of icing to her Maribor cake by winning on her “home” turf. Qualifiers looked good, with the on form Rachel storming to a 2.02-second “win” over Sabrina Jonnier. Floriane Pugin, Tracy Moseley, and Emmeline Ragot were all in the mix, as well. Finals saw Jonnier take the hot seat with only Rachel left up top, and despite a solid run, Rachel was unable to attack the lower section of the track as strongly as the Frenchwoman, finishing 1.11 seconds back from Jonnier. As her style, Jonnier very deservedly chugged the remnants of her champagne bottle after hosing off her fellow podium finishers; to the victor go the spoils…
In her own space, Sabrina Jonnier during her warm up at the top of the track.
The men: Gee Atherton received a bit of criticism for sitting up a bit near the end of his qualifying run, coming home in qualifying at +4.41 to Greg Minnaar, with Matti Lehikoinen, Aaron Gwin, Cameron Cole, and Sam Blenkinsop in between.
A very relaxed Gee Atherton warming up for the pre-finals practice.
Emmeline Ragot looks to be getting back on form, finishing fifth here at Fort William vs her lackluster eleventh at Maribor.
“After qualifying first last year… well, that’s a lot of pressure,” explained the Commencal rider. “I’d rather be a bit chill and focus on racing for the win without that pressure on me this time ‘round.”
A pretty sound strategy as Gee came home 2.05 seconds faster than Mick Hannah, tossing the GT rider out of the hot seat before settling in to wait out some stiff competition. Cam Cole gave him a bit of a scare, finishing .41 seconds back, while Sam Blenkinsop came down 2.11 seconds back. Then Minnaar was on track. The South African has won here before and was looking to be on another level, but was unable to surpass Gee’s ability to mash gears and suffer on the lower section, coming in at 1.21 to Gee. Taking a cue from Jonnier, Gee hosed the podium down, but then savored every last drop of his victory champagne.
Cam Cole qualified third on Saturday, 1.55 back from Minnaar, and then pushed himself into second place during the finals, finally riding up to the potential he showed as a Junior.
US National Chamo Melissa Buhl missed out Maribor due to her pre med school studies and looks to be getting a slow start to the season as a result, coming in thirteenth at Fort William. Look to see her back on the podium at Leogang, but a WC overall title is likely out of reach give the short season this year.
Hill wisely DNF'd the qualifying round in order to take advantage of his top 20 protected rider status and give his damaged shoulder an extra day to heal up for the finals. Alas, to no avail. Rolling one practice run the morning of the Final was enough to convince Hill to scratch entirely instead of exacerbate the damage to his shoulder by racing on it.
A disappointing start to the season for Peaty for sure. Many think the Syndicate rider slacked on training. Few take into account the fall he sustained at the Lisbon Downtown, which severely bruised his back. That fall was a major factor in Peat's lack of performance in Maribor and the lingering effects were still haunting him on the physical monster that is Fort William. The mid-season break between Leogang and Champrey should see a return of Sheffield Steel.
Danny Hart railing the root line in the lower woods section. Good enough for fifteenth on the day.
No playful bar humps ala his debut at Mt St Anne in 2008; this version of Aaron Gwin is all business as he pins it into the finish paddock at the Ben Nevis ski area outside of Fort William.
Andrew Neethling oozes style on any track. Watching him in training is always a treat. But when the chips are down, the South African is focused on making the podium and nothing else.
Points wise, Sabo takes the women’s overall World Cup leader’s jersey from Rachel with a 25 point lead, while Minnaar retains his hold on that particular rubber chicken for now—although Gee is a scant 15 points back. With Hill out of this race and a short season, it looks to be a battle between the two for the World Cup title.