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Mountain biking: Cunningham unfazed by returning to the scene of past pain

FOR most people, returning to the scene of a serious accident, one that had resulted in your collar bone being broken in four places, would be a traumatic experience.

Ruaridh Cunningham loves competing at Fort William   Photograph: Getty
Ruaridh Cunningham loves competing at Fort William Photograph: Getty

Ruaridh Cunningham, however, is clearly not most people. When he sets off on his qualifying ride at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, Fort William, on Saturday afternoon he will feel no trepidation.

It was on a training run at the same track, perched high on the slopes of Aonach Mor in May last year, that a seemingly innocuous decision to switch bikes had catastrophic consequences for the downhill racer.

"I had a bit of an issue with the carbon bike I use 99% of the time and changed to an aluminium one," said Cunningham. "Unfortunately, the way it was set up was a little different. I had a lapse in concentration as a result and had a big crash."

The Borders man was admitted to hospital and needed to have his collar bone - the one in the same shoulder he had undergone surgery on just three months before - plated back together. He missed two months of the season as a result.

Yet the 25-year-old will still feel the same rush of euphoria and exhilaration as he did before his fall when he hurtles over the course, cheered all the way by thousands of his compatriots, at high speed next weekend.

"As a Scottish rider the Fort William event is obviously huge for me," he said. "The crowds are big and loud and really get behind you. But it is special for the other competitors as well. It is definitely the highlight of the year. The track is up there with anything that we compete on anywhere all season. It is very fast and it is very narrow. It is predominantly man-made and is built on top of a peat bog. As a result, the course is raised up. It is unique and testing. I really like it."

Bizarrely, the only thing Cunning-ham is wary of now in the wake of his accident are the X-ray machines he passes through at airport security. "You would expect those things to go haywire with the plate in my collar bone," he said. "But nothing goes off. I'm starting to question their accuracy."

The former junior world champion - a landmark victory he achieved at Fort William in 2007 - does not expect to challenge for a place on the podium. "I would be delighted with a top-15 finish," he said. "Getting inside the top 10 would be amazing.

"I came back towards the end of last season and won a European Cup event, which is a tier below the World Cup, in a real mudbath in Chatel in France. After being out for so long, that was a pretty good result for me. I was lacking bike fitness after being sidelined. That is something you cannot get in training. You have to ride yourself fit in competition. In the last World Cup event of the season I finished 28th and was happy with that.

"I have only done a few races this season, but I was 21st in the World Cup event in South Africa. That was a good result to get things going. We will see how things go at Fort William. But it is always great to take part. I am looking forward to it."

Cunningham feels that, no matter who prevails next weekend, Scotland as a whole and the sport of mountain biking in particular are the big winners at an event that has, since first being staged in 2002, grown to become the most innovative and spectacular on our sporting calendar.

The Unior Tools rider supplements his income in the close season by helping to coach our up-and-coming riders in conjunction with Scottish Cycling and Dirt School. He has been impressed by our youngsters.

"When I was a junior there was only myself and maybe one other rider who had the potential to be world class," he said. "Now we have at least half a dozen riders who have the potential to be professionals. The talent pool is far deeper.

"I went to the first UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Fort William and it was there that I basically decided it was what I wanted to do. It has been massive for mountain biking in Scotland over the years.

"I am taking part in the TweedLove Enduro World Series event in Peebles just now. To have that event one week-end and the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Fort William shows how big and diverse mountain biking in this country has become. It is all positive."

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