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From face in the crowd to place back in the saddle for Ruaridh Cunningham

IT IS almost seven years since Ruaridh Cunningham conquered Aonach Mor.

Ruaridh Cunningham competes in  the Downhill World Series in 2012.  Picture: Getty
Ruaridh Cunningham competes in the Downhill World Series in 2012. Picture: Getty

It is still a topical triumph, the echoes of the past sounding clearly again as the Scot prepares to return to Fort William for the third round of the UCI World Cup Downhill Series this weekend. A collection of rocks and earthen embankments are enduring features of a course which became a stage in 2007 as Cunningham hurtled headlong into the spotlight, etching his name into the Nevis Range as he signed off as the junior world champion.

Now 25, he has since relinquished that title and his presence among the senior field on Saturday will be a vestige of Scottish success on home soil. The Union Tools Team rider stood apart from the event last year having broken a collar bone during practice; his presence made known only by vocal support of compatriot Greg Williamson and the eagle-eye of a PA announcer. The Scot was another face in the crowd as the prodigious Gee Atherton claimed first place on the final day.

The Englishman was able to win the hearts and minds of the locals last year - his sister, Rachel, was embraced similarly after winning in the women's final - an acclaim which reached its crescendo during his coronation later in the evening. The siblings top the downhill world rankings ahead of the latest phase of the World Cup.

That seems a pertinent observation in a sport which is contingent on details. Downhill racers will often appear to be a relaxed bunch but they are seldom complacent, with Cunningham fully aware of the collective labour which enabled him to reign in Fort William in 2007. With so much riding on the Scot's bike and his ability to control it on his final descent, Cunningham put the brakes on a desire to celebrate until he was certain he had won. "It was more of a relief than anything," says the Galashiels-born rider, who is currently 57th in the rankings. "Years of work went into that one run. For it to happen the way it did; me being the last rider down having been the fastest qualifier and getting the win in Scotland, it was pretty special but there was relief.

"The fans see you doing the run on the day and they are stoked, but for me I saw all the time and effort and travel and things I'd put myself through in preparation for that one run. We spend three, four days practising and making little changes to the bike. It is a lot of hard work, with it all coming down to one run. For us it's a serious business."

It is a universal sentiment too, since the event will be contested by riders from some 25 different countries. "For some of the guys to come from wherever it is they're coming from, to put everything on one five-minute run . . . there is a lot of pressure in that situation," Cunningham adds.

The camaraderie of the field provides a release, with rivalries tending to last only for the duration of a rider's run. Cunningham acknowledges the distinction from team sports and makes reference to rugby as a contest in which an opponent can impact directly - and often literally - on the performance of another. It seems an apposite example too, given that shuddering collisions can occur in both sports.

Broken bones and a serious knee injury which afflicted him for more than two years can be counted among the gravest damage that the 25-year-old has suffered on a bike. Yet that pleasure which he derives from racing has emerged unscathed from every crash; the sensation first felt when his bike was still on stabilisers has only quickened with the desire to go faster.

"I feel healthy, fit; this is probably the best condition I've been in coming into Fort William in a long time. I'm looking forward to it," he says. In time Cunningham might come to look back on this year with some satisfaction too.

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