Mountain Bike World Cup: Minaar strikes again at Fort William

FORT William's downhill course isn't adored by everyone but yesterday at the Mountain Bike World Cup 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 4 minutes 39:46 seconds on a scorching day on the Nevis Range. Judging by the 28-year-old's performance, it will take a heroic effort or a massive mishap to knock the Santa Cruz Syndicate rider off his perch.

"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.

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"The conditions were better last year," he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "There was a lot of snow which made it easier. This year it was tough coming into the top sections with the tailwind."

Despite his issues, he took to the circuit like he'd never been away yesterday, finishing ahead of New Zealand duo Samuel Blenkinsop and Cameron Cole.

While Minaar was marvelling, 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. "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 packed and festival atmosphere akin to T in the Park ensued. The crowds, with air horns and didgeridoos, made their way to the grandstand and finish area, delighted that the clouds passing over the Nevis range seemed happy not to dally. Perhaps it was the noise generated by the assembled thousands that cut short their stay.

Prior to the qualifiers, many of the riders commented positively on the significant alterations made by the governing UCI to the Aonach Mor course and with few weather issues to deal with – a rarity for Scotland – it was clear the times were going to be fast. That proved to be 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 adoring crowd that she is a Briton eager to make up for lost time. Her super-fast descent of 5 minutes 19.84 seconds was almost two seconds faster than 2009 winner Sabrina Jonnier of France. Her smiles at the finish were a sure indication that she is enjoying herself again. Florian Pugin of France rounded off the top three with a time of 5:23:78 while the darling of Fort William on many occasions, Tracey Moseley, was fourth. Moseley had a poor World Cup here last year but her performance in the saddle yesterday suggests that she will definitely be lurking around the medal positions today.

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Perhaps the brightest aspect about yesterday's qualifiers was the performance of the Scots. Ben Cathro of Oban finished inside the top 20 on his run, despite a crash, and could push for a top-ten slot in today's final after qualifying 18th with a time of 4:48:75. Ruaridh Cunningham, the 2007 Junior World Champion, was literally right behind him in 19th, posting 4:49:30.

Afterwards, Cathro said: "Being inside the top 20 is good, especially after making a major mistake. I am on the pace and looking forward to it."

He is not the only one. It isn't difficult to see why this event has been crowned best World Cup in five out of eight years. The action was frenetic, the bikemanship was inspiring and the crowd more than played their part. The forecasts might not be so hot for today's downhill finals but it will take more than the odd spill of rain to dampen the enthusiasm of the community camped at "Fort Bill".