When you’re trying to pick the winner of a DH race, there are two factors that help guide you towards your decision: form and history. Amaury Pierron, the winner of Round One in Lourdes a few weeks ago, was also the winner of the 2018 and 2019 World Cups at Fort William and in 2019 he set the fastest time I can ever recall anyone descending Aonach Mor, a simply stunning 4:28.5. So that’s that then, Pierron wins. If only racing was so simple…
All photos: Red Bull Content Pool
Since that day in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has denied the Highlands another World Cup visit, and it’s been missed. There’s no other track like Fort William. It’s not steep or particularly difficult to ride, plenty of people have descended it on a trail bike without issue and aside from the road gap, which is only open on World Cup weekend, there are no big features to fear. It’s a bugger to race though. The challenge lies in the length – it’s the longest track on the World Cup circuit, and the terrain – granite bedrock which hasn’t been polished smooth like your kitchen worktop, quite the opposite in fact. As soon as you leave the boardwalk section roughly a minute into the track it’s relentless until you get to the woods. There are no smooth sections to give your arms a rest, your choice is simple: either hit the rocks or hop them. Either way, it’s exhausting. By the time you get to the Deer Gate your legs and arms are burning and you’re still only halfway. There’s more granite, the woods and the motorway still to come…
Rumour has it that they might take the old line from the Deer Gate which is physically more demanding and will potentially give the riders a different entry to the woods.
So, who does history tell us has done well here then? It’s no surprise that Greg Minnaar has more wins than anyone else. With seven, he’s actually got more than everyone else lining up this weekend combined. As he proved in Val di Sole last year, Minnaar can win anywhere, but if he’s going to win a World Cup at 40 years of age, history tells us it’s likely to be here.
Between them Pierron and Minnaar have won every race dating back to 2014. Troy Brosnan was victorious then but he’s at home, still recovering from a broken ankle sustained at Australian National Champs. Gee Atherton (2013 winner) is still recovering from throwing himself off the side of a cliff, which leaves Aaron Gwin (2012 winner) as the last of the current racers to be victorious.
What about form then? Well, Finn Isles has had a great start to the season winning seeding and eventually finishing fourth at the pre-season race in Brioude and second at the first World Cup. He won here as a Junior in 2016 and podiumed here in 2019. Also on that podium in 2019 were Loris Vergier and Danny Hart. Of the Brits competing this weekend Hart could be the man to watch. There was a British 1,2,3 at the National in Fort William a fortnight ago with Hart taking the win, Laurie Greenland second and Matt Walker third. Danny invests a lot into Fort William, spending 2 weeks there in the camper ahead of that race. He doesn’t ride every day but still… Unfortunately for him, winning the National that generally precedes the World Cup doesn’t seem to translate into World Cup victories.
It was a stacked field though and Vergier, Daprela and Minnaar were all within the Top 7. Loris looked lightning fast in Lourdes before a small crash, as did Thibaut who won the Junior Men’s race Fort William in 2019. What about Bruni? Well, as he said in our most recent episode of the pod, he sucks at Fort William. Just one podium in all his years racing here but he’s set himself a target to do well at the Bill this year and I think he might make that two this weekend. Then there’s Reece Wilson who’s podiumed at Fort William before and Luca Shaw and Benoit Coulanges who were both on the podium in Lourdes? The field is deep and we could go on all day but expect the winner to be someone who’s been on the podium at Fort William at least once before.
That might not be the case in the Women’s race though. Rachel Atherton has won 4 of the last 7 races down Aonach Mor but she won’t line up this weekend. Yet to feel strong enough after the birth of her daughter she won’t race until she knows she’s ready. Tahnee Seagrave was the only other previous winner who could line up in the start gate this weekend. She’s out though after a training crash left her with a concussion. So, that means we’ll have a new winner. Camille Balanche has only competed at Fort William once before finishing seventh in 2019. She’s improved a huge amount since then though and won the first round in Lourdes so she’s a definite contender this weekend.
Nina Hoffmann was third in 2019 and won the National, finishing nearly seven seconds ahead of Vali Hoell. Hoffmann’s time of 5:18 was only three seconds off Atherton’s winning time in 2019 and whilst the woods might’ve been a little different, they don’t change that much and given Pierron’s time in 2019, we know the track was running fast. Hoell is a contender but goes better elsewhere. She only lost twice in her two Junior seasons, once was here where Anna Newkirk put 3.5 seconds into her.
The favourite must be Myriam Nicole. Pompon has been racing in the Highlands since 2007 and despite never winning, has been second four times.
In Junior Men Jordan Williams is possibly the biggest favourite of the weekend. At the National he laid down a 4:34.94 which would’ve been good enough for second in Elite and was nearly nine seconds quicker than his main rival and winner of Round One, Jackson Goldstone.
Aside from Phoebe Gale, all the other competitors in the Junior Women’s race are coming to Fort William blind. There’s a lot to learn in a weekend, especially if you’re tucked away in B-Practice. Any of them getting close to her this weekend will do well.
The weather? Well, it’s not looking great with heavy showers predicted across the weekend which might play to the Brits’ advantage.
Five talking points:
- Fort William has never been won on a mullet and Minnaar is one of the remaining few riders on a full 29. Can he keep that record alive this weekend?
- Or, will Amaury Pierron get the three-peat? Much as he’s the favourite, racing doesn’t always go that way…
- Can Loic Bruni turn his Fort William fortunes around?
- Who will be the first time winner in the Women’s field?
- Where will Jordan Williams’ time stack up in Elite Men?
Watch it here:
Live finals schedule on Red Bull TV:
The Women’s Elite final takes place on Sunday, 22 May, at 12:30pm (UK).
The Men’s Elite final takes place on Sunday, 22 May, at 1:30pm (UK).
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