FORT WILLIAM, SCOTLAND – Storms, rain, an unforgiving track, crashes and incredible runs, the Mercedes-Benz UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup in Fort William had it all. Here are some of the highlights from the weekend's racing in the Scottish Highlands:
Storms, rain and a punishing track
After several years of fair weather and sunshine, the infamous Scottish weather struck back. Storms and heavy rain tormented riders and equipment throughout practice, qualifying and finals in what even the most seasoned locals amongst the large crowd braving the weather would describe as very wet. Contrary to most tracks, the majority of the 2.8km-/ 1.8mi long course actually becomes grippier in the wet, as the moisture binds the slippery and loose gravel found on the top half of the track. The wood section, which resembled a muddy bog, visibility problems due to rain and mud on rider’s lenses and high winds still made for uncomfortable and challenging conditions, which caught many riders out on the notoriously difficult track.
Loic Bruni (FRA), Finn Iles (CAN), Gee Atherton (GBR), Kade Edwards (GBR), Tahnée Seagrave (GBR) and Monika Hrastnik (SLO) all had heavy crashes in the days leading up to the finals, whereas Aaron Gwin (USA) and Reece Wilson (GBR) hit the ground / a tree hard in their race runs. While most walked away bruised and battered but still able to race, Hrastnik (concussion) and Seagrave (shoulder) weren’t so lucky and had to sit out, with the latter definitely missing the next World Cup in Leogang and likely also the following stops in Vallnord and Val di Sole.
The Junior Men and Junior Women fields are catching up to the two Dominators
Thibaut Daprela (FRA) and Vali Höll (AUT) have been dominating the Junior categories in the last year and are the big favorites in every single race, but in Fort William the grip of the two youngsters over their respective fields loosened. Höll enjoyed a perfect season in 2018 by winning every single race and qualifying since she started racing in the Junior category with times that even threatened the Elite podium. She started her 2019 campaign in similar fashion by winning both the qualifying and race in Maribor as well as the qualifying in Fort William. However, on race day, for the first time in over a year, the winner wasn’t Höll. Leading the race comfortably, two crashes in the middle wood section ended her unprecedented winning streak and saw her cross the line in second behind Anna Newkirk (USA), who took her first World Cup win. On the other hand, Daprela, who won five of the seven World Cups in 2018, placed 2nd in the remaining two and also won the 2019 season opener, came under threat by two riders racing their first-ever World Cup. Both Luke Mumford (GBR) and Patrick Laffey (CAN) gave the young Frenchman a good run for their money, finishing a mere 0.8 and 2.1 seconds behind Daprela and rewarding themselves with a second and third place finish in their World Cup premiere. Daprela and especially Höll, who will be racing in front of a home crowd in Leogang, will be eager to reassert their dominance at the next World Cup.
New faces on the podium
On the women’s side of racing, the 2018 season was dominated by a battle between three riders who split up the World Cup wins between themselves – Myriam Nicole (FRA), Tahnée Seagrave and Rachel Atherton (GBR). A broken ankle sustained just before the start of the season saw Nicole sitting out the first races of the season, turning the anticipated three-way battle for the Overall Title into a British duel between Seagrave and Atherton. In Fort William, Seagrave, running the number one plate of the World Cup leader for the first time in her career following her win at the season opener in Maribor, crashed hard on her first practice run, injured her shoulder and was forced to sit out, leaving Atherton as the sole favorite with Tracey Hannah (AUS) looking like a distant second. Hannah was having none of it however, put down the fastest time in qualifying and showed up green throughout the first two-thirds of the finals. As Atherton nervously watched on from the hot seat, a small slip up just before the motorway saw Hannah’s lead diminish and she eventually crossed the line in second just outside of Atherton’s time. Behind Atherton and Hannah, German Nina Hoffmann made the most of her first trip to Fort William, showing a spectacular performance and rewarding herself with a third place and her first ever World Cup podium in what was only the sixth World Cup start of her career. Marine Cabirou (FRA) and Veronika Widmann (ITA) rounded out the podium in fourth and fifth.
The French continue their dominance
Amaury Pierron (FRA) catapulted himself to fame by winning his first World Cup in Fort William in 2018, kick-starting a spell of French Downhill domination on the way. Pierron backed up last year’s victory in Fort William with two more consecutive wins and the Overall World Cup title. Returning to the venue of his first World Cup victory, the conditions were the polar opposite of the dry and dusty track of the previous year. However, just like in previous races throughout the last year, it was once again the French who would make the most sense out of the difficult and demanding track. Heading into the finals as favorites after placing first and second in qualifying with a four second lead to third place, Loris Vergier (FRA) and Pierron didn’t disappoint. Following a fantastic run by the young gun Finn Iles (CAN), who was still bruised and battered by a crash sustained in practice, it was Australian Troy Brosnan, who sat in the hot seat with a time that looked unbeatable. A whooping 3.5 seconds clear of Iles and with only the two Frenchies left at the top, Brosnan watched on as Pierron attacked the top-section of the track hard. With splits showing up green and margins getting bigger, Pierron sprinted along the motorway, clearing the large jumps before shocking the crowd and viewers by nosediving towards the finish line at break-neck speed. To everybody’s surprise, including himself, he somehow miraculously managed to hold on, crossing the line a massive 3.5 seconds ahead of Brosnan. Vergier, the last rider left up top, gave it his all in a smooth, fast and composed run but in the end Brosnan’s and Pierron’s times were out of reach and he had to settle for third. Seven of the last eight World Cups have now been won by a French rider, will the French dominance continue in Austria this weekend?
The Overall Rankings are wide-open
With two widely different podiums in the first two races in all categories, the Overall Rankings are as close they can be. Going into the next race in Austria’s Leogang, Troy Brosnan leads the Elite men’s field with 350 points. Just 20 points behind the Australian lies defending Overall World Cup Champion and Fort William winner Amaury Pierron, followed by Maribor winner and defending World Champion Loic Bruni with 301 points and Danny Hart (GBR) with 292 points in fourth. On the women’s side of racing, Rachel Atherton has taken over the lead from injured Tahnée Seagrave. Just 30 points behind Atherton, Tracey Hannah moves up into second with 400 points, followed by Marine Cabirou and Nina Hoffmann with 290 and 285 points respectively.
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