The Nevis Range downhill course has taken on almost legendary status. It’s not the longest, the fastest or the most technical, but it’s got a unique mix of all of those things combined with unrelenting roughness. And, of course, there’s its exposed location on the peaty slopes of Aonach Mor. The rain had held off for the whole of the weekend, until just as the women’s final runs commenced. It was only a bit of drizzle, though – not really rain at all. In fact, it was quite welcome, helping as it did to keep the midges down.
It was all to play for in the women’s DH, with Tracy Moseley within striking distance of series leader Sabrina Jonnier. With a tight points margin, the Semi-Finals took on a new importance – with 50 points up for grabs, it was entirely possible that a Semi win could make all the difference. Moseley made an early statement of intent with a blistering run, five seconds clear of Jonnier. But points are awarded for position, not time, and with Jonnier earning 40 points for her second place in the Semi, Moseley didn’t make much impression on her points deficit.
The slight hint of weather during the finals brought some wind with it, but the course stayed largely dry. The change in the conditions was enough to slow Jonnier down, with a final run of 5:02.02, five seconds down on her semi time and just over a second down on the time that Rachel Atherton had just posted, the Junior World Champ having shaved a few tenths off her semi.
That just left Tracy Moseley to descend the hill. Like Jonnier, she was slower in the final – in fact she lost more time than the Frenchwoman. But it wasn’t enough to rob her of the win. Moseley crossed the line with a time of 4:59.97 (the only sub-five minute time in the final) to tumultuous cheering and applause. With Rachel Atherton in second, it was a good day for British women. Well, not all of them – Helen Gaskell came in sixth, but a puncture put Fionn Griffiths down to 20th.
Tracy may have won the battle, but she hadn’t won the war. Jonnier’s third in the last round meant that her lead over Moseley had been cut to just 35 points, but a lead it remained – Jonnier is the World Cup Champion, with Moseley in second, Rachel Atherton in third, Vanessa Quin fourth and Marielle Saner fifth.
In the men’s competition, Greg Minnaar had already wrapped up the series title. But there was still plenty for the home crowd to cheer for. Steve Peat had never won at Fort William, and now fully recovered from his early-season injury he had unfinished business to attend to. He was the fastest man on the course all weekend – fastest in timed practice, fastest in the Semi-Final. But we’ve been there before, and it’s the final that counts.
British hopes were raised early on with Neil Donoghue taking the lead with a 4:23.77. With a time eight seconds slower than Peat’s semi-final run, Donoghue didn’t look likely to occupy the (tropically-themed, for some reason) hotseat for too long, but he held on for the next sixteen riders until Markolf Berchtold clocked a 4:22.47. He barely had time to settle into the deckchair before Matti Lehikoinen slashed four seconds off Berchtold’s time. Lehikoinen’s 4:17.41 was fast, but with ten more riders to go it looked like it wouldn’t be fast enough, and sure enough Chris Kovarik responded with a 4:15.76, a time almost identical to Steve Peat’s winning semi-final run.
With times in the women’s final having been generally slower than in the semi, it looked unlikely to some that the times could fall any further. But World Cup Champ Greg Minnaar (racing in new all-black kit to reflect his status as No 1) was having none of it, and the crowd went wild as the South African posted the first sub-two minute split time on the upper section of the course. Minnaar exploded into view on the final drop into the arena and crossed the line in a staggering 4:13.57, two seconds clear of Kovarik.
That left a lot of work to do for the last few riders down. Cedric Gracia couldn’t get near it and nor could Sam Hill. Neither could Gee Atherton, although he got closer than either of them. Nathan Rennie was looking good with another sub-two minute split (that was actually quicker than Minnaar’s) but he let a crucial second slip away on the bottom part of the course.
Marc Beaumont was next down, and it was heart-in-mouth time for the spectators as his split time came up just outside the magic two-minute mark, but not much outside. The clock ticked on… and on, past Minnaar’s time, past Rennie’s and Kovarik’s. A mechanical had put paid to Beaumont’s chances.
The atmosphere in the arena was electric as Steve Peat commenced his run. All eyes were on the clock waiting for the split time to come up, and when the yellow dots spelt out “1:59.42” the cheering and yelling could be heard across the Highlands. And then it was just a nervous wait for everyone. For the crowd, willing Peat to score his first home World Cup win, and for Minnaar, sat in the hot seat with what had looked like an unassailable lead.
And then Steve Peat appeared, leaping through the Red Bull arch at the highest visible point of the course with time to spare. The crowd went absolutely bananas, with airhorns, trumpets, cowbells, sundry metallic objects, hands and voices all combining in a symphony of encouragement. Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any louder, Peat crossed the line, the clock stopped at an unbelievable 4:11.44 and all hell broke loose.
It’s impossible to describe what the Nevis Range arena was like just after Steve Peat’s run, so we won’t even try. Suffice it to say that no-one who was there will forget it in a hurry. The crowd celebrated a double British victory by the simplest means possible – through the medium of noise. And it was a beautiful sound.
Minnaar had won the World Cup series before he arrived in Fort William, but the rest of the podium was to be decided. Sam Hill managed to hang on to second overall, with Rennie third, Cedric Gracia fourth and Gee Atherton an impressive fifth. Marc Beaumont managed to stay within the overall top ten, too.
We’ll have more reports from Fort William over the next couple of days – XC, 4X, tech stuff from the pits and all sorts of other bits and bobs. Keep checking back…