Mountain Bike World Cup: Graves first at the Fort William

QUEENSLANDER Jared Graves wasn't quite on top of the world last night but not far from it after winning the Mountain Bike World Cup high on the Nevis Range, Fort William.

The 27-year-old was victorious here last year in the thrill-a-second 4x discipline – which pitches four riders against each other – on the way to claiming the overall series win. Following a delayed final, he is now on course to emulate his feats of 2009.

Graves went into the men's showpiece as favourite and saw off the spirited challenge of Joost Wichman, Michal Prokop and Romain Saladini to take the honours.

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He was clearly still feeling the high altitude exhilaration on the podium afterwards. "Things were pretty sketchy at the top and Joost and I banged elbows coming through the gates," he said. "I felt wired the whole race and I'm really happy to win here at Fort William."

In the women's 4x event, it was Czech Jana Horakova who followed up her recent win at the World Cup meeting in Houffalize, Belgium, with a powerful run and victory. She out-sped Anita Molcik, Romana Labounkova and Anneke Beerten to take the win, leaving the near 10,000 crowd on tenterhooks for today's Downhill final.

Fort's downhill course isn't adored by everyone but Greg Minaar showed no signs of ending his love affair with Aonach Mor. The South African downhill expert, a winner here in 2008 and last year, posted the fastest qualifying time of 4min 39:46sec on a scorching day.

Judging by the 28-year-old's performance, it will take a heroic effort or a monumental mishap to knock the Santa Cruz Syndicate rider off his perch today.

"It was a good time and the crowd here are always mental so I have a great time every year," smiled Minaar, who did note that he found the going a little tougher than 2009 – not that anyone else would have noticed.

"The conditions were better last year," he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "There was a lot of snow which made it easier." Despite his issues, he took to the circuit like he'd never been away, finishing ahead of New Zealand duo Samuel Blenkinsop and Cameron Cole.

While Minaar was excelling, Britain's male downhill riders were making heavy weather of it. You had to look down the leaderboard as far as sixth before Gee Atherton's name appeared, while reigning world champion Steve Peat qualified in 11th.

According to Atherton, hopeful of his maiden Fort William win today, keeping a little in reserve was all part of the strategy.

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"It is a mistake to give it everything in the qualifying so a steady run means I am staying good ahead of the finals. A win here would mean everything."

The sizzling sunshine on Lochaber and the introduction of live rock music set the tone for yesterday's runs. By the time the first riders started to hurtle headlong down the 2.82km course, the place was teeming.

Prior to the qualifiers, many of the riders commented positively on the significant alterations made by governing body UCI to the course and it was clear the times were going to be fast. That was definitely the case, with the low wooded sections particularly quick.

In the women's qualifiers, Rachel Atherton proved her victory in the mud of Maribor in the last round was no one-off and she will be the rider to beat in this afternoon's finals. Only the stone hearted would have failed to feel sympathy for the young Salisbury rider when an accident in America with a pick-up truck led to her missing a year of racing, just after her victory in the World Championships.

Yesterday, she convinced the crowd that she is eager to make up for lost time. Her super-fast descent of 5min 19.84sec was almost two seconds faster than 2009 winner, Sabrina Jonnier of France. Florian Pugin of France rounded off the top three in 5:23:78 with Tracey Moseley, fourth.

Perhaps the brightest aspect about the qualifiers was the performance of the Scots.

Ben Cathro of Oban finished inside the top 20 as did Ruaridh Cunningham. At one stage Cathro had clocked up the fastest split time of all before a crash left him cursing his luck.

Nevertheless, the pace was there and, if he can pull his run together, he could be looking at a "Fort Bill" personal best.

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"To finish inside the top 20, particularly after a major mistake, was good," he said. "I am looking forward to the final now."

He is clearly not alone in that.