Mountain-biking: Atherton's aiming to hit the heights in Fort William

WHEN the mountain bike community makes its ascent up Aonach Mor for the World Cup this weekend, Steve Peat and South African Greg Minaar will be the names uttered most when it comes to likely winners.

Nevertheless, it is a more under-rated Briton than Sheffield's Peat who could finally have his day at Fort William.

Gee Atherton, second overall going into the annual jamboree on Ben Nevis, is beginning to come of age.

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Christened George, the Salisbury-born 25-year-old lacks the cult status bestowed upon Peat – the most successful rider of all time. However, within his camp, there is a feeling that this could be the season he emerges as a challenger and Atherton himself is determined to lay some ghosts of 'Fort Bill' to rest in tomorrow's final.

"Fort William has been mixed for me," he says, casting his eyes over the 'village' which will become home to 18,500 frenzied bike nuts for two days of carnival. "I have never won and that is always on my mind when I come here but I'm second after Maribor and I'm feeling good."

Capable of excellent one-off runs in the past, the berms and pits of Aonach Mor have always stumped Atherton. It's been close but no champagne.

However, the work of the excavators on the downhill course could have opened a clearing for him to clatter through.

There have been fairly significant alterations this year on the 555 metre plummet, with most riders commenting on how much more bedrock is showing on sections of the course.

This could suit Atherton's style, although he is aware that reigning world champion Peat, and Minaar – winner here in 2008 and 2009 – could also benefit.

"Steve had a good year last year and will definitely be one of the main contenders," says Atherton.

"Greg rides well here and is supremely fit and Sam Hill, too, has won this event.

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"He maybe lacks a bit in the power but the technical ability sees him through. Me? I am hoping to marry some good results with better consistency."

"At 25, you can say to yourself that you have time to be the number one but I want to do it now. I don't want to wait. I feel my time is coming to be the main challenger. I feel strong and ready for it."

In the women's downhill, the main focal point will be another Atherton, Gee's sister Rachel. She looked unbeatable in 2008 when winning the world championship before an unfortunate accident involving a truck and a road bike in California knocked her, literally, off course.

Nerve grafts were required followed by reconstructive shoulder surgery. However, the Athertons are made of tough stuff and Rachel's first World Cup event since her enforced 12-month sabbatical resulted in victory at Maribor.

With the French dominating entirely in 2009 at Fort William, Atherton's return to the course will greatly enhance the chances of a British victory on British soil.

"Without me dwelling too much on the past, the year I've had has given me useful tools to cope and hopefully I'll come back stronger," said the 22-year-old, who has eight World Cup victories on her CV.

"With an injury like that, when you are out so long, you do wonder if you will ever get back to the same level again but I had belief.

"When I won in Maribor, I was surprised and relieved.

"I had thought about it for a year, seeing other girls riding. I went back to my apartment, had a meal and just went to bed. Now I just want to have fun at Fort William."

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Home fans pinning their hopes on a Scot could witness top 20 runs by Oban's Ben Cathro and 2007 Junior World Champion Ruaridh Cunningham.

Cathro, in particular, has a flat-out style which suits Fort William, providing he stays in the saddle. In the 4X, it would take a brave person to bet against Jared Graves in the men's section.

Look out for British girl Fionn Griffiths in the ladies, though. She finished best Briton last time. 2010 could be her year.