For the first time in the seven years that Nevis Range has hosted this elite sporting contest, the weather forecasters proved thankfully unreliable, with temperatures topping the 20-degree mark for three consecutive days and, unsurprisingly, the crowds were back in their tens of thousands. It’s the Sunday downhill finals that invariably draw the hoardes, in part due to the seat-of-your-pants nature of the action itself, but mainly because it holds the greatest home interest and genuine chances of podium success. Of the 80 starters in the men’s blue riband event, 25 were British — nearly three times as many as its nearest rival.
The Aonach Mor course itself — plunging 555m over its 2820m length — is a beast to behold at the best of times. In these parched and dusty conditions it threw up an unfamiliar set of Highland challenges, with grip through the corners and rock gardens at an premium. It took until final qualification for one thing to become blindingly obvious — the course was running blisteringly fast. To emphasise the point, South African Greg Minnaar’s semi-final time was almost five seconds faster than Sam Hill’s rainbow-jersey winning time last September.
With such an unforgiving course, casualties were inevitable. Scotland’s Ruaridh Cunningham, the reigning junior world champion, was perhaps the highest profile and typical of many, crashing out at the top of the course and never threatening the leaderboard. However it couldn’t have been more different for Oban-based rider Ben Cathro. Having posted the sixth fastest time in qualifying, he rode the race of his young career to finish in eighth.
But in one of the most exciting finales of recent years, it fell to the big guns of the sport to battle for podium places. The last four riders out of the start gate comprised current world champion Sam Hill — the man they all want to beat — winner of the previous World Cup round, Gee Atherton, and former Fort William winners Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar.
With the stands still reeling from Cathro’s superlative performance, crowd favourite Peat barrelled into the arena in a breath-taking and seemingly unassailable time of 4:47:42. He’d barely taken his place in the hot-seat when Hill entered the home stretch. The crowd held its breath and the almost unbeatable Aussie crossed the line more than a second-and-a-half down.
Peat knew better than to start making room in his trophy cabinet though and he was wise to wait. Form man Atherton shaved seven-hundredths of a second from the Yorkshireman’s time and there was a new leader. With one man left on the course, improbable back-to-back World Cup wins for Atherton looked on the cards. That was to discount one last twist. On a day of truly extraordinary finishes, Minnaar totally decimated his opponents, claiming the spoils by more than three seconds, a rarely witnessed margin.
Earlier the women’s race had proved equally close-fought, with France’s Sabrina Jonnier, the current world champion, just nudging out the youngest Atherton sibling to claim silver. Enter three-time Fort William winner Tracy Moseley to smash Jonnier’s time by more than four seconds. It was a welcome return to the top for the current British champion with the world championships in Italy only a fortnight away. She said: “It’s my favourite place to race, you just can’t beat this crowd. Hopefully I can now carry this form forward to the Worlds.”
Of course the downhill is just one part of the weekend’s racing and highlight of Saturday’s cross-country event was the continued good form of Oli Beckingsale who rode the entire race in the top ten, eventually settling for a ninth place finish — a result that should surely be enough to cement his selection for the Beijing Olympics. Florian Vogel, Nino Schurter and Christoph Sauser completed an impressive hat-trick for Switzerland.
The women’s XC race was to prove a battle of the old stagers. In a two-woman breakaway, World Cup leader Marie-Helene Premont (Can) saw off the challenge of Spain’s Marga Fullana (Esp) on the final lap, with Sabine Spitz (Ger) three minutes back in third.
In the other main discipline, the four-cross (4X), Britain’s Dan Atherton made his second successive final, riding comfortably to take third spot behind Jared Graves (Aus) and Joost Wichman (Ned). Jana Horokova (Cze) took the women’s crown.
Asked what the future held for the Worlds at Fort William, oganiser Mike Jardine said: “We’d always said we’d hope to hold an event every year up until the 2012 Olympics to keep the Brit flag flying and have put a bid in to hold another triple-header in 2009.” However whether the format stays the same, particularly holding the four-cross on Friday night, remains to be seen. Jardine added: “Certainly the riders and trade would like to see the 4X remain on Friday, but perhaps outside of the World Champs it’s not ideal for spectators.”
Men’s Elite Downhill (DH):
1 — Greg Minnaar (RSA
2 — Gee Atherton (GB)
3 — Steve Peat (GB)
Other: Nathan Rennie 4th, Sam Hill 5th, Ben Cathro (Scot) 6th, Dan Atherton 7th, Chris Hutchens (Scot) 17th.
Women’s Elite DH:
1 — Tracy Moseley (GB)
2 — Sabrina Jonnier (Fra)
3 — Rachel Atherton (GB)
Men’s Cross-Country (XC):
1 — Florian Vogel (Sui)
2 — Nino Schurter (Sui)
3 — Christoph Sauser (Sui)
Other: Oli Beckingsale 9th, Liam Killeen 26th.
Women’s Cross-Country (XC):
1 — Marie-Helene Premont (Can)
2 — Maragrita Fullana (Esp)
3 — Sabine Spitz (Ger)
Men’s Four-Cross (4X):
1 — Jared Graves (Aus)
2 — Joost Wichman (Ned)
3 — Dan Atherton (GB)
4 — Michal Prokop (Cze)
Women’s Four-Cross (4X):
1 — Jana Horokova (Cze)
2 — Rachel Setdoux (Sui)
3 — Anneke Beerten (Ned)
4 — Melissa Buhl (USA)