British riders have always upped their game at what is, essentially, their home course, and this year was no different. Fort William is considered one of the gravity centers of the sport, and boasts some of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of the year. At nearly five minutes long, the track is also one of the hardest, requiring technical skills for the rocky upper section, and power and fitness for the bottom half.
Rachel Atherton qualified first among the women, over six seconds in front of Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre Gravity Republic), but the defending overall World Cup champion has been burned before in Scotland, finishing second the last three years. Fort William was the only major downhill result missing from her resumé.
Emilie Siegenthaler (Gstaad-Scott) set the first sub-5:30 time, which held until Nicole Myriam (Commencal/Riding Addiction) went below 5:25. Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen) then took the leading time below 5:20, but Ragot and Atherton were still to ride. Ragot couldn't manage to overtake Carpenter, so it was down to Atherton, and the British champion did not falter, finishing over ten seconds ahead of her compatriot.
"Winning is just ridiculously hard here," Atherton commented. "I have qualified first a few years here. You can't let your guard down. It is such a wild track and that run was just so messy all the way down, I was just thinking I'm throwing it away, the other girls are going to be smoother. I couldn't believe it when I crossed the line and finally heard the crowd cheering, instead of groaning like normal. I can't believe it."
Atherton leads the overall standings with 250 points, followed by Carpenter at 190 and Ragot at 180.
Unlike the women, the men's race did not have a single clear favourite. Danny Hart (Giant Factory), the 2011 world champion, qualified first, but less than two-tenths of a second ahead of Gee Atherton.
The leading time crept down slowly, with Austin Warren (Pivot Factory Team) the first to go under 4:50. Local Scottish rider Greg Williamson (Trek World Racing) was the next to spend any length of time in the Hot Seat, but the fastest riders were just starting to come down.
Sam Hill (ChainReactionCycles.com/Nukeproof), who won the world title in Fort William in 2007, broke the 4:40 mark, but that would not prove to be enough to make the podium. Only two riders later Brook MacDonald (Trek World Racing) took the lead, with five riders remaining, setting the stage for some of the closest times ever seen. The next three riders all came within nine-tenths of a second of MacDonald, but none could surpass the New Zealand rider.
Then it was the turn of Atherton, the 2010 winner at Fort William. The British champion was running the rock sections at the top noticeably faster than any other rider and, although he lost a few tenths of a second in the lower half, he still crossed the line 1.142 seconds faster than MacDonald to take the lead. Hart covered the top sections of the course almost as quickly as Atherton before fading in the pedaling section to finish seventh.
"I can't begin to describe it," said Atherton. "It is a pretty emotional feeling. It has been a while since I won here, and my sister won on the same day. It doesn't get better than this. I was scared, but it was a smooth run. This is the first run on a new bike but it went smooth. I couldn't have asked for a better run really. I am stoked to start the World Cup series like this. Bring it on, I say.”
Atherton leads the World Cup with 240 points, followed by MacDonald with 180 and Steve Smith (Devinci Global Racing) with 162.
In the new Junior mens’s World Cup category, Noel Niederberger (Gstaad-Scott) was the top finisher, followed by Michael Jones (FMD/Intense Cycles) and Lucas Dean (Australian National).
Photo: Gee Atherton in action at Fort William