Once again, in the brooding shadow of a white-tipped Ben Nevis, the sun scorched down on the Lochaber venue yesterday. That makes it 12 years in a row of almost unbroken sunshine in one of the wettest place’s on God’s green earth – fortune certainly smiles on this ever-popular event.
Such joyous sunny interludes bring out the best in people, and yesterday the locals had dusted down their vuvuzelas and cow bells from last year, the organisers turned up the bass on their huge sound system, and the party was in full swing by midday. That was little surprise because once again there was much to cheer. OK, there were no Scottish girls among the 20 qualifiers yesterday, and local favourite and former world junior champion Ruaridh Cunningham didn’t feature after breaking his collarbone here two weeks ago, but there were still plenty of riders to support.
Chief amongst them was Inverness’ Greg Williamson. The Trek World Racing rider only turned pro in January, but he’s already making waves after finishing 12th in the British Downhill Series, although he’ll have to go some to match his target of a top ten place after qualifying in 26th position yesterday, over 12 seconds behind the fastest rider, Danny Hart. Williamson has come a long way since this time last year when he was holding down jobs in a department store, teaching mountain biking and delivering fruit and veg for his father’s wholesale business. It’s proved to be a good move, with his excellent performance at the Underworld Cup in Port Angeles in the US suggesting the switch to full-time racing has brought him on in such leaps and bounds that he can finish further up the leaderboard today.
Williamson wasn’t the only Scot to make it to today’s 50-man final. In fact, he was the third of four local riders to get through, with Borderer Lewis Buchanan qualifying in 19th, independent Oban rider Ben Cathro qualifying in 25th and Fraser McGlone, an 18-year-old from Appin who is in his first year as a pro, snagging 50th place and the final qualifying position in a time of 4min 58.032secs, almost 17 seconds behind the leader. Yet no matter how much local interest was focused on the Scots yesterday, they were always going to be an hors d’oeuvre for the main course of the first family of mountain biking, the Athertons.
First up was Rachel Atherton, the world champion and a girl who has achieved virtually everything in the sport except for winning at her favourite track – which just happens to be Fort William. In 2012 she won the British Championships, European Cup and World Cup, dominating the world of women’s downhill mountain biking and in the process winning five of the seven rounds of the MTB World Cup. Yet despite being quickest in qualifying by an incredible ten seconds last year, she was pipped by half a second by an inspired ride from Emmeline Ragot.
The French rider was once again Atherton’s closest rival yesterday, although she came off second in qualifying as the Salisbury rider was in unstoppable form. She was steady on the top section, building up a lead of more than two seconds over Ragot, and lightning quick over the fast bottom half to put a further four seconds on the French girl, finishing more than six seconds clear of Ragot. Atherton has had an incredible six second-place finishes in Fort William, so it’s little wonder that the 25-year-old says her No.1 priority in the sport is to break her duck at today’s finals at a venue which she described as “a savage track that kicks my ass every year”.
If Atherton qualified first and finished second last year, her 28-year-old brother Gee – who won here in 2010 on the way to becoming downhill World Cup champion – almost equalled her heroics, qualifying second behind Hart last year and finishing third in the next day’s final after American world champion and hot pre-race favourite Aaron Gwin came from 29th in qualifying to win the men’s race, with Hart second. Yesterday’s men’s qualifying was almost a mirror image of last year, with Hart once again the fastest down, completing the 2.82km course in 4:41.094, with Atherton just 17 hundredths of a second behind him and Gwin way back in 14th place, with veteran South African Greg Minaar in 12th place. If Rachel Atherton is hoping that this year will not see a repeat of the 2012 race, it is a sentiment shared by her brother.
In the final action of the day the women’s four-cross final was won by Katy Curd who beat two former world champions to become the first Briton to triumph in this event. The men’s four-cross final was won by Czech rider Tomas Slavik.