“Fort William: the biggest Love / Hate relationship there is!” said 5x UCI World Champion Rachel Atherton, in the build-up to the highly anticipated second round of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Downhill World Cup , 1-2 June.
As well as claiming more victories than most at the Aonach Mor course, Atherton’s had her fair share of misfortune there – crashes, injuries, mechanicals. But she’s not the only rider to see devils and angels at Fort William. So what is it about the “Home of the brave” that sets so many hearts racing?
The Scottish leg of the UCI World Cup is a classic venue, ever-present on the circuit from 2002. In those 17 years there has been no shortage of drama, and while the course itself sees regular modification and updating, “Fort Bill” retains its underlying character: long, fast, steep, technical and ready to wreck bikes and riders.
Despite the location being difficult to reach, the crowds – regardless of the unpredictable east coast weather, and slightly more predictable midges – are always present in number. Estimates at recent editions are above 20,000, but it’s quality as well as quantity: highly vocal, knowledgeable, with a penchant for fancy dress. Along with the track itself, the prestige and the atmosphere are special and many riders suggest that the crowds are what makes Fort William really stand out.
In the Men Elite competition, one rider stands head and shoulders above the pack, adding to the folklore: triple UCI World Champion (11 times podium) and triple overall UCI World Cup winner, Greg Minnaar. The most decorated downhiller ever has won a staggering seven times at Fort William, from his first in 2003 to his three consecutive victories 2015-17. His relationship with the venue is also hot and cold. Take this troubled 2007 campaign:
“I had my shoulder all strapped up. I ended up crashing over the bars in the woods, dislocating my shoulder again and breaking the scapula in the process. I still managed to ride into fourth.”
Ten years later he spoke to Pinkbike, reflecting on how the course is to ride: “You ride Fort William, suddenly you're going through a left-hand corner that drops away over some rocks, no matter what year you rode it, it was hard. No matter how they taped it, it was always just as hard.”
Behind the big South African are two men with two wins each. Britain’s Gee Atherton celebrated his 2010 win by saying: “I’m the most excited I’ve ever been about winning an event. It’s been a massive goal of mine and it’s an amazing catapult into the season for me.”
While Australian Sam Hill was asked how it feels coming into the Fort William finish arena, he said: “It’s the best finish ever, the crowd there is amazing.”
Among the Women Elite contenders, Britain’s Tracy Moseley has five wins, and rates Fort William in her top-three races ever: “Winning my first World Cup, Fort William, 2002. That was my first ever World Cup in Great Britain, and I was the first ever British woman to win a World Cup,” Moseley told Pinkbike.
“Every year I raced there, the crowds were amazing,” she told Dirt magazine.
French rider Sabrina Jonnier and Great Britain’s Rachel Atherton each have three wins, and mix tough tests with great celebrations. After taking her first win in 2007, Jonnier said: “I feel like I am in enemy territory.”
Later she reflected on how the course tests riders: “The first year, the woods were so muddy that it was hard to stay on the bike and it was so windy at the start that bikes hardly stayed attached to the gondola…pretty scary! The track has improved a lot over the last ten years, it’s always fast and fun to ride. It’s always packed with a massive crowd cheering loudly and getting so excited.”
2017 was painful for Rachel Atherton: “I dislocated my shoulder. I’ve done it before and I know what to do. I need to get down the mountain before the adrenaline wears off and it starts hurting and I start crying. There was a spectator near me and I turned to him: ‘Come on, mate, you need to pull my shoulder back into place’. The problem was he was being too gentle because he didn’t want to hurt me.”
A year later: “Over the years I used to hate it, it's a big track, you have to be strong and fit but I learned to love it and trained into it – you develop yourself as a rider to love Fort William.”
2018’s Men’s Elite winner, Frenchman Amaury Pierron couldn’t conceal his joy: “At the bottom I was already smoked but I gave everything. I gave more than everything… I don’t understand what is happening!”
But Britain’s Tahnée Seagrave didn’t sound exactly celebratory with her victory last year: “I’ve had the worst week I possibly could… In previous years, I was out for a year with a dislocated elbow and I’ve had horrible injuries in the past. To finally just get down in one piece was going to be the goal, let along taking the win – that’s just a bonus.”
For Australian Kye A’Herne, winner of the 2018 Junior Men’s: “It’s a crazy feeling to win your first World Cup. To also win at Fort William, at one of the biggest races of the year is very special!”
While Austrian Junior Women’s winner Valentina Höll recognised an “Insane weekend of racing in Fort William.”
In every category, throughout the years, Fort William has a special ability to touch the riders. And in a few days, we’re back again for whatever new drama 2019 brings.