Today saw the beginning of the 2013 downhill race season with training and qualifying here at Fort William. The first real show of who’s been training hard and also who’s off the boil, qualifying at the opening race is an important place for those keen to make a statement, which is exactly what two young British riders did today.The bit about the weather
Scorching sunshine blessed all present at the event today and surprised many unsuspecting sunburn victims. It’s something of a rarity to see Fort William with blue sky above and so everybody here was making the most of a summery day at the Nevis Range. The warm weather was also making its mark on the course, with turns becoming dustier by the minute and holes in the track opening up for riders to hit at full tilt.
There’s always a great atmosphere here, with one of the biggest turnouts for World Cup events season-on-season. Today was no exception, with thousands of spectators out to witness their favourite pro riders putting it all on the line. Fans were revved up from the get-go this morning, with cheers and shouts of encouragement going through the roof for every British rider coming through in practice. Filmers and photographers were also out in force covering every angle going – there are hundreds of them out there!
Qualifying kicked off with the juniors, now a separate category (traditionally the juniors raced in the same class as the older riders), and Taylor Vernon did the British proud by taking the win. In the process he made his intentions for the season clear and also did a great job for GT Factory Racing, his new sponsor.
The women’s category is expanding and the depth of talent increasing, with a seriously impressive display of riding from each and every of the competitors. Rachel Atherton was first off (as the top ranking riders in the UCI standings go first in qualifying) and made her mark from the outset and laying down a time that no one would be able to even get near. Eventually as qualifying drew to a close Rachel’s time was good enough to put her a clear six seconds ahead of French Emmeline Ragot, with Britain’s Manon Carpenter biting at her heels in third.
The men’s qualifying was pretty much all to play for, with the level of world downhill racing possibly being at its highest ever and many people capable of taking the top positions. As it panned out, everyone’s favourite export of Redcar played his cards and layed down a blinding run. Danny Hart is back to form and seeing the way that he fires his way down the track at breakneck speed, composed yet on the edge and ready to get loose at any moment is a sight to behold and a level of bike handling that can only come from a lifetime of hard work. Danny’s been racing since he was a young child and it looks like the form he displayed to win the Champery World Championships in 2011 is back for the season to come.
Gee Atherton proved why he is a sponsor’s dream with his slot on the podium almost ensured every season. Second place in qualifying today and you can be sure to see him gunning for the win in tomorrow’s main event. Kiwi Sam Blenkinsop of Lapierre showed his winter’s training has paid off and followed his Enduro World Series top-ten up with third in qualifying here. Look out for this man on a mission tomorrow.
As for the rest of the field, Britain’s favourites Steve Peat and Brendan Fairclough were just outside the top twenty and Josh Bryceland, easily capable of a top five here, had an unfortunate departure from the track. American dream Aaron Gwin squeezed into the top 15 – we expect to see him fighting for the win tomorrow – and current World Champion Greg Minnaar was a little off the gas but he’ll no doubt be flying by finals. Harry Heath, riding on a self-funded mission, put in a solid performance to qualify in 11th.
Tune in to RedBullBike’s coverage of the event tomorrow from 14.45 and make sure to be shouting at the screen for all the British riders.