Australian Sam Hill and French gravity ace Sabrina Jonnier scored an unusual double on the final day of the world mountain bike championships at Fort William on Sunday as they both successfully defended their downhill titles.
Hill beat Fabien Barel of France by just over six-tenths of a second, while Britain’s Gee Atherton claimed third and a little more glory for the host nation.
The same three countries occupied the women’s podium, with Jonnier comfortably faster than second-placed Rachel Atherton (Great Britain) and Australia’s pocket rocket Tracey Hannah taking the bronze in her senior world’s debut.
In the junior events it was a good day for Great Britain with a gold in the men’s and a silver in the women’s. 18-year-old Scot Ruaridh Cunningham became the first British man ever to win a world championship downhill title, ahead of John Swanguen (USA) and New Zealand’s Matthew Scoles.
The junior women’s race was won by Floriane Pugin (France), with Britain’s Katy Curd second in only her second ever outing at this level. Myriam Nicole (France) was third.
Conditions had been adequate earlier in the day, but worsened considerably during the final event, the senior men’s downhill.
An indifferent seeding run gave Sam Hill a tactical advantage as he bumped Spain’s Pasqual Canals Flix – the first rider down the hill – out of the hot seat. Twenty-three more riders would follow Hill down Aonach Mor, most of them fully aware that he had beaten Greg Minnaar’s fastest qualifying time.
Seeded 18th, France’s Fabien Barel showed that Hill’s time wasn’t superhuman, as he moved into second place 0.64 seconds slower than the Australian. But could Hill be beaten?
The huge home crowd gave full vocal support for long-time favourite Steve Peat as he set out to challenge Hill from 13th seed. With his recently dislocated ankle strapped up, Peat looked like a man on a mission until a heavy landing saw him snap his saddle clean off the rails. Nevertheless, if crowd support won world championships Peaty would have taken home the rainbow jersey as the crowd roared its approval at his final huge jump through the finish banners.
Second-last rider to start, Britain’s Gee Atherton looked like a threat but couldn’t quite match Hill’s time. His run placed him third – would he stay on the podium?
Minnaar was unable to repeat his seeding-run performance in the drenched conditions and it quickly became obvious from the time splits that he was not going to upset the podium, eventually slotting between Atherton and Canals Flix for fourth place.
Conditions were good for the women’s race, which saw Jonnier as the fifth-last rider down the hill, bumping Britain’s Fionn Griffiths out of the ‘hot seat’ of fastest rider so far. Hannah was next, but couldn’t oust the flying Frenchwoman and nor could Jonnier’s compatriot Emmeline Ragot.
That left just two British riders, Tracy Moseley and fastest qualifier, Rachel Atherton. In the British camp, hopes were high that Moseley would take the honours as world champion, completing the set at last - she's won everything else. Unfortunately, she landed heavily on a corner, leaving her with a damaged wheel, knackered gears, and limping into a very disappointed fourth place.
The last rider down the hill, Atherton had a clean run by comparison, but couldn’t match Jonnier’s sheer speed, finishing four seconds behind the French woman for the silver medal.
While the fastest senior men later conquered the conditions to equal the best seeding-run times, that wasn’t so in the juniors, where times were generally several seconds slower. Seeded eleventh, American John Swanguen was the first to post an indicative time, clocking 5:08.89 to take over the hot seat from Australia’s James Maltman.
Over the next few minutes the biggest assault on Swanguen’s time came from Down Under as Matthew Scoles (New Zealand) and then Mitchell Delfs (Australia) came within a whisker of the American’s time. Second seed Josh Bryceland punctured and finished way off the pace, leaving just his team-mate and close friend Cunningham to challenge.
The ten-thousand strong crowd cheered Cunningham home as he shaved two seconds off Swanguen’s time despite an incident with a photographer on the way down. The final podium top three was Cunningham, Swanguen and Scoles. It was the first men’s downhill world championship ever for Great Britain and the first downhill medal for the USA since 2004.
The French team gave notice of its up-and-coming talent when its two junior female riders took the first two places in seeding, but a much slower final run put second-seed Myriam Nicole into the bronze medal position behind Britain’s Katy Curd.