South African rider Greg Minnaar emerged victorious after a nailbiting final few minutes at the fourth 2009 UCI World Cup downhill round in Fort William, Scotland.
When sixth-from-last man down Sam Hill (Monster Energy/Specialized/Mad Catz) put in a storming run that gave him a five-second-plus lead (4:40.43), it looked like he might have the win sewn up.
But Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) pulled it out of the bag with a flawless run combining technical skill and raw power, eventually finishing over a second up (4:38.98).
Click play below for the top five men downhill runs and post-ride interviews:
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The men's field had multiple candidates for the win – Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate) was coming off two consecutive World Cup victories, his team-mate Minnaar was defending champion at the venue and second fastest in qualifying, world champion Gee Atherton (Animal-Commencal) was fastest in qualifying and Hill won the world title on this course in 2007.
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Australia's Brook MacDonald (Ancillotti Doganaccia) set the early fast time of 4:52.54, which stood up surprisingly well. It took 29 riders, over one-third of the field, before three-time world champion Fabien Barel (Subaru MTB Team), in his first race back after a knee injury, finally took the best time, setting the bar below 4:50.
"I'm super pleased to be back after seven weeks off," said Barel "I had quite a good run at the top, but then lost time at the bottom in the pedaling section."
Barel's time in the Hot Seat lasted through 15 riders before Chris Kovarik (ChainReactionCycles/Intense) knocked another second off the lead, followed a few minutes later by Canada's Steve Smith (MS Evil Racing). Justin Leov (Trek World Racing) soon after shaved another few tenths off before Aaron Gwin Holmes (Yeti Fox Shox) made the next major cut in the lead, down to 4:46.72.
Canada's Steve Smith (MS Evil Racing) had a brief spell in the Hot Seat
The race was coming down to the final 10, and it was apparent that only those riders with the fitness to pedal through the lower section into the finish had a chance to do well. Seconds were made or lost in the final 600 metres.
Junior World Champion Josh Bryceland (Santa Cruz Syndicate) briefly took the lead, and Matti Lehikoinen (MS Evil Racing) came close at eight to go, before Hill put in a tremendous ride to drop the lead to 4:40.43, with five riders remaining.
Peat could only slot in four seconds behind Hill, then came Sam Blenkinsop (Yeti Fox Shox), who came within a second-and-a-half of Hill. Mick Hannah (GT Bicycles) assured himself of a fourth consecutive podium by finishing just behind Blenkinsop, and then it was the turn of Minnaar.
Sam Hill's fetching pink and yellow kit will be auctioned for a breast cancer charity
Looking smooth and graceful, hugging the ground over jumps for extra speed, the South African was clearly on a superb run. He was fastest at the first intermediate timer, four-tenths slower than Hill at the second, but hit 69.498kph through the speed trap near the bottom to finish 1.45 seconds ahead.
"I gave it my all," said Minnaar. "Sam put up an amazing time, and I really had to put it all out there at the bottom of the course."
Atherton was still to come down – the fastest qualifier and with the support of a home crowd. He started well, only one-hundredth of a second behind Minnaar at the first time split, but couldn't maintain the pace, slipping to fourth by the finish line.
Peat's lead in the overall standings has slipped to a slim four points over teammate Minnaar at 762, with Atherton in third at 657 and Hannah at 652.
Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate) still leads the overall World Cup standings
Sabrina Jonnier's domination of the women's World Cup downhill circuit continued when the Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain Bicycles rider took her third consecutive victory and led a French sweep of the top five places in Fort William. Jonnier retained her World Cup leader's jersey, with the season now half finished.
"It's great to finally win a World Cup in Fort William, one of the best tracks on the circuit – especially after waking up to sunshine!" said Jonnier.
The good weather remained from the previous night of 4X racing, leaving the track fast and loose. Canada's Micayla Gatto was the first to set a sub-six-minute time, and her 5:42.72 ride was fast enough to put her into the Hot Seat for nearly half of the race. Her compatriot Claire Buchar (Chain Reaction/Intense) finally knocked a slim three-hundredths off the lead time.
Buchar lasted on top for three riders, until Myriam Nicole put in the first of what would prove to be a series of very strong French rides, knocking 10 seconds off the best time. However, Nicole's time in the lead lasted exactly one rider before Floriane Pugin (Iron Horse-Kenda) replaced her. Pugin, in turn, was replaced immediately by Celine Gros (Morzine-Avoriaz 74).
Next up was Tracy Moseley (Trek World Racing), the home favourite. Moseley went off to a good start, posting the fastest time at the first intermediate time check, but crashed lower on the course, falling out of contention.
There were just two riders left, both French – Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center) and Jonnier. Both were a step above the rest of the field, with Ragot knocking four seconds off Gros's time, and then Jonnier completely demolishing Ragot's run by over nine seconds, to claim her third consecutive World Cup win.
Jonnier's win has extended her lead over Moseley, with 892 points to the British rider's 750. Moseley is also being chased from behind, as Ragot has moved to within 25 points.
"It was awesome to be part of an all-French girl podium," said Jonnier, who credited her new Rocky Mountain Flatline WC as a key to her success. "I made the right choice with my front and rear [tyres] today, too," she said.
The World Cup racing in Fort William was watched by huge crowds