WC #2 // Fort William
After a three-year hiatus, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Series returned to the Scottish Highlands for the Fort William round - a tried and trusted staple of the series and a daunting challenge for any rider who lines up to take it on. Fort William's track celebrates 20 years of racing this year and runs down the infamous Aonach Mòr mountain, picking a rock-strewn and high-speed path, pushing even the best selection of downhill bikes to their limit. In the six weeks since Lourdes, many teams headed over to prepare and even race the British national round on the same course - meaning most riders were up to speed early, eager to push the limit and find glory come Sunday.
Every Fort William story must feature the venue's most unpredictable character - the weather. Rain rolled in on Friday afternoon, washing out timed practice and staying present from there on out. Laurie Greenland and Marine Cabirou topped the sheets, playing their cards early before qualifying.
Qualifying began as Camille Balanche grabbed the top spot in the Elite Women's category, continuing where she left off in Lourdes and doing her leader's jersey justice. In the Elite Men's category, Laurie Greenland was setting the tone yet again - topping the session by over 2 seconds, followed closely by teammate Greg Minnaar in 3rd, and fellow Brits Charlie Hatton and Bernard Kerr in 2nd and 5th.
British fans, equipped with cowbells and an unwavering excitement for downhill, began to fill the venue early on Sunday morning - ready to cheer on their heroes and watch the absolute limit of what is possible on two wheels: race days are something special.
The junior rivalry of Jordon Williams and Jackson Goldstone continued in Fort William - this time, Williams came out on top, with Goldstone finishing second for the first time all year in a timed run at this level - watch out, Leogang.
Scotland's Phoebe Gale was dominant in Junior Women's qualifying and up by a significant margin to begin her final run. Unfortunately, a crash relegated her to a second-place finish, leaving Norco's Gracey Hemstreet to capture a second consecutive win.
Dominant at the National and again in Qualifying until a flat tire slowed her down, Nina Hoffman was in a different class at Fort William in 2022, earning her first win of the season. Camille Balanche extended her overall points lead with a solid second-place finish. Myriam Nicole rounded out the top three, closing a tough few weeks of health issues after Lourdes.
As the Elite Men's race wore on into the afternoon, Kade Edwards brought every fan to their feet - crashing up high, Edwards filled the lower half of his run with a mix of whips, no handers, and even a can-can. A real contender now, Edwards will have to wait for the next opportunity to show what he can do against the clock.
With ten riders to go, it was all to play for. Benoit Coulanges and Angel Suarez fought through the sideways wind and rain to earn 4th, and 10th place finishes, respectively.
The GOAT, in downhill and especially in Fort William, showed impressive speed all weekend, but it wasn't to be this time, as he crossed the line in 7th place. Redemption will come soon.
As Amaury Pierron sat in the hot seat, there was just one man to go - Laurie Greenland. Greenland's time flashed green at the first split, and the crowd exploded in a roar of admiration, desperate to see a homegrown winner. Greenland was up or in touch, riding a seemingly flawless race. One mistake across the road gap was all it took, showing just how fickle the sport of downhill can be, and Greenland couldn't get back in front, finishing in an eventual 3rd place - a still brilliant ride for the new Santa Cruz Syndicate rider.
The circus will enjoy a well-earned two-week break before heading to Leogang to pick up these battles once again, and as for Fort William, these riders will return next year to fight for the biggest prize of them all - a rainbow jersey.