World Championships: the elusive rainbow stripes and the one that riders want more than any other race of the year. The mighty Fort William is the familiar, but not necessarily friendly, proving grounds that held this years UCI Downhill MTB World Championships. Fort Bill is renowned for its brutality, exposed lines and unpredictable weather.
The Continental Nukeproof Factory Race team had three of its four riders representing their home countries: Chris Cumming (Ireland), Veronika Widmann (Italy), and Louise Ferguson (Great Britain). Ronan Dunne was selected and was tipped to be a real contender to bring the medal back to Ireland, but a hand injury ended his hopes of victory in the Fort.
As soon as riders took to the track walk, they were noticeably stoked. Numerous changes on the track made for a fast top section, with those familiar gnarly Fort Bill rocks and the infamous woods section before some sizeable jumps on the motorway section into the finish line.
Fort William is famous for its chunky boulders, iconic turns, and amped-up spectators who line the track and elevate the energy levels during race runs.
The World Championships followed the format of World Cups previous, with a qualifying on the Friday which contributed to seeding for Saturday's Final.
All the riders were feeling particularly confident in practice, enjoying the faster tracks and getting full runs in. Qualifying showed this confidence transferred into race results with Vero putting in an incredible performance to finish 5th, team mate Louise Ferguson was struck down with a rough cold throughout the week and was delighted to just put a full run down, taking 16th in qualifying.
Chris Cumming for Team Ireland had the aim of putting down a clean confidence inspiring run which he did, putting him in a solid top 60 position.
Like clockwork, the Fort William weather reared its head for race day, with the women's race having a comparatively dry track. This meant it was running faster than ever, with no margin for error.
Raised in Fort William and honing her DH craft on the Nevis Range tracks, Louise Ferguson was more determined than ever to put on a show for her fans (of which there were many), despite battling low energy. Louise's run was nothing short of incredible. Making light work of the technical woods section, where it was becoming evident the podiums were being decided, Louise stormed into the final section of the track, clearing the motorway jumps and into the finish gate to an unbelievable roar of the Fort William crowd to put her into the hot seat for the next 5 riders.
Vero Widmann was on the hunt for the podium position, proving her focus, speed, and skill on the unforgiving track. In 4th position on the first split, her pace was there but it wasn't meant to be – a puncture before the second split put a stop to any podium hopes. Vero proved her professionalism and finished her race run by heading straight over to teammate Lou to congratulate her. Vero's spot on the podium is imminent and it will be so well deserved.
As the last few female riders came down, Lou was still sat in the top spot. Ultimately the top 3 women from qualifying managed to top her time, with powerhouse Vali Holl taking the win, Camille Balanche in 2nd, Marine Cabirou in 3rd and the Fort William local Louise Ferguson taking the 4th spot.
An incredible achievement, and a once in a lifetime moment for the young Scot at her home race. It's safe to say, Lou won't be a stranger to the DH World Cup podiums.
The rollercoaster of emotions in the Women's Final wasn't stopping anytime soon with the Men's Final being one that will go down in history. For the first 20 riders, the track remained largely unchanged from the Women's, until the heavens truly opened, and in true Scottish style it continued right the way through until the results were decided.
Visibility in the open top section was changing for nearly every rider and as the rain set in, quick decisions on setups were required to ensure the riders were prepared. As more riders fell to the mercy of the ever-changing conditions, it became apparent that serious commitment was required to conquer these conditions.
Familiar with the wet conditions, Irish rider Chris Cumming showed a calm head and composed riding as he put down a textbook run to post his best-ever Elite World level result with a 41st. Chris was stoked on his run, knowing there was the possibility to push a little more – fuel for the fire for the next World Cup rounds.
A special mention has to go to former Nukeproof Wideopen rider Charlie Hatton, who rode a perfect run to take the rainbow stripes for Team GB. A well-deserved win, congrats Charlie.
A fairytale ending for Fort William local Louise Ferguson and a testament to her commitment and tenacity, heartbreak for Vero knowing she was in strong contention and a career best run for Chris. One thing is for sure: the Continental Nukeproof Factory Racing team are a family and one that support one another no matter what.
World Champs 2023, over and out. We'll see you in Andorra for the next DH World Cup.