The men’s downhill semi-finals at Fort William saw a very relaxed-looking Steve Peat, his bike sporting a brand-new set of air-sprung Boxxer forks, qualify a hefty four seconds ahead of Mickael Pascal and Sam Hill. That gave him crowd-pleasing last-man-down status in the finals. Last year’s winner Cedric Gracia was fourth qualifier followed by Fabien Barel, Greg Minnaar and defending World Cup champ Nathan Rennie.
In World Cup DH racing, though, anything can happen, and the men’s field is so competitive that there’s a whole bunch of riders who could win on the day. Particularly in conditions veering erratically from sunshine to rain and back again, often during the course of a single run.
David Vazquez Lopez is a regular top finisher at World Cups – he was fifth overall in 2003. But a slow semi-final run meant he was second out of eighty-three riders to tackle the Nevis Range course in the final. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his time of 4:22.07 remained unbeaten for a long, long time.
It’d be pretty much unprecedented for the second rider down to win a World Cup, and so it proved on this occasion. We’ve got a plane to catch so we won’t document the ebb and flow of the leaderboard over the two hours it took to get all the riders down the hill, but the climax to the main event was well worth the entrance fee. When World Champ Greg Minnaar took the hot seat on his bonkers gearbox-driven Honda RN02 with five riders to go, bets were split as to whether he could hang on. His 4:10.24 was faster than Peat’s qualifier, so the odds were good. Fabien Barel couldn’t match him, Cedric Gracia couldn’t match him (although he got closer than anyone else at 3.36 seconds down). Sam Hill couldn’t quite match either of them. Mickael Pascal was out of the running. And last man down Steve Peat? Well, his run of Nevis Range luck continued – he could only manage fourth. He got the loudest reception in the arena, though… So it was Minnaar, Gracia and Hill in the top three places with Peat and Pascal rounding out the podium.
There were some great performances from other British riders, too – inside the top 20 we had Gee Atherton in 8th, Marc Beaumont 10th, Crawford Carrick-Anderson 15th and Dan Atherton 18th.
The riders haven’t got much time to mull over their results, though – DH/4X Round 2 is next weekend at Les Deux Alpes, France. And with another four rounds after that there’s still everything to play for.
So that’s that for another year. The weather didn’t quite play ball but it never got really unpleasant and the huge crowds weren’t put off in the slightest. The organisers reckon that visitor numbers were up 10% on last year, with a particularly big rise in family tickets sold. That and BBC coverage has got to be good news for British mountain biking. Fort William’s bidding to hold the World Championships in 2007 – the spectators love it, the riders love it and the UCI seem to love it too, so the team have got to be in with a good chance. And we got a British winner on home soil, that would be quite possibly the best thing ever…