The Aonach Mor venue is just about as iconic in terms of mountain bike racing as it’s possible to get. Only Canada’s Mont-Sainte-Anne has appeared on the calendar more than the Highland track. It’s a brutal thing combining the length and intensity of speed more synonymous with old-school courses with a sprinkling of the new school thrown into the mix. Each year bits are altered here and there but the theme remains very much the same; it’s tough at the Fort.
In the elite women’s race, Tahnée Seagrave, who was still chasing her maiden Fort Bill win, cut a despondent figure after Saturday’s qualifying session. The prodigious speed which had won her three races in 2017 just wasn’t there and in front of the British fans, it seemed a bitter pill to have to swallow.
Frenchwoman Marine Cabirou was sat in a sweltering hot seat under blue skies when Seagrave rolled out of the start hut to set about her time. At each split, her advantage increased and by the bottom the lead was hers with only the overall leader Myriam Nicole and Rachel Atherton left at the top. Nicole was bitten hard by the Scottish track but survived intact enough to roll to the bottom and would be rewarded for her efforts with a second place finish.
All eyes were on Atherton but within a couple of pedal strokes, it was all over. The crowd at the bottom groaned in anguish as the queen of downhill’s chain flew from the rear of the bike. She wasn’t done however and kept up her attack, tucking, pumping and hopping her Trek down the hill and into what would be a third-place finish. The old adage that you win titles on your bad days may yet prove itself to be true yet again.
Seagrave, on the other hand, was elated with her win in front of friends and family and can finally tick Fort William off the list of tracks she’s yet to conquer.
In the men’s race, qualifying had been a tale of two Americans. The points leader and victor of round one in Croatia, Aaron Gwin, had suffered a rear flat and as a result remained a potentially unknown factor. But it was the Santa Cruz Syndicate’s Luca Shaw who made the ancient slopes his own by going fastest. Gwin’s great rival and Shaw’s teammate, Greg Minnaar, was out with a fractured arm. His quest for an eighth victory in Fort William would have to wait.
Once racing got underway it was Scotland’s Reece Wilson who had the grandstand on its feet. One by one the world’s best failed to topple his time and he’d hold on for a credible fourth place finish.
Gwin was up at the splits and looking as though he was building into one of his now trademark domination jobs. But there was a sting awaiting in the form of the newly rock-infested woods section. The champ was shot over the bars and on to the deck.
Frenchman Amaury Pierron, riding the same Commencal bike as piloted by Wilson, had no such bad luck however and stormed home to take a well-celebrated and extremely popular debut win.
The series moves to Leogang, Austria for round three, on June 9-10.