Scotland has a new world champion. Ruaridh Cunningham wrote his name into the history of downhill mountain bike racing yesterday when he became the first British man to win a world title.

The 18-year-old picked up the junior gold medal at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in front of huge galleries at the Nevis Range in Fort William. He is also in contention to win the prestigious World Cup series in Slovenia next weekend.

There was even more British medal success yesterday, with Gee Atherton claiming bronze in the men's downhill final after a courageous ride in deteriorating conditions, while his sister, Rachel, won silver in the women's event, won by France's Sabrina Jonnier.

Australian Sam Hill was crowned the men's world champion in a time of 4:52.01, half-a-second ahead of Fabien Barel, of France.

Cunningham's winning time of 5:06.82 in the junior event would have been enough for 17th place in the elite category, an interesting yardstick of his prodigious talent. The final was tipped to be a face-off between Cunningham, who qualified fastest, and fellow Brit Josh Bryceland, but the latter punctured halfway down and trailed in well down the field.

The Scot still had it all to do, but announced his arrival on the world stage with a gutsy ride during which he hit a spectator, but still managed to finish two seconds ahead of John Swanguen, of the United States.

"To be the first British male world champion, and to do it in Scotland is amazing," said the 18-year-old from Stow, in the Borders.

"The wind troubled me in some points and I hit a spectator down the bottom, lost my footing, then hit a tree, but somehow I didn't fall off. A lot of people struggled with the wind and the cold, particularly the foreign riders. My run was all messed up, but I never gave up."

Cunningham's diminutive frame belies real strength, but his riding style is all about technique. He slaloms round corners like a downhill skier with a death-wish. He also has the heart of a lion. Some might call it a good temperament'. In Scotland we call it serious bottle'.

After qualifying fastest, he was the last rider out on the course. As he made his way up to the start on the Gondola, he could not fail to have heard the cacophony of noise from the expectant crowd below. "I will say the name again . . .

RUARIDH CUNNINGHAM," bellowed the excitable announcer. No pressure, then.

By that point, Bryceland had punctured and fellow-Scot Chris Hutchens had finished eighth fastest, out of the medals.

Swanguen occupied the hot-seat, an armchair situated at the end of the track on which the leader is invited to recline. It was all resting on Cunningham's slender shoulders as the wind ominously started to kick up.

"My bike nearly blew off the gondola on the way up. It swung round and hit the window. I got a bit nervous at that point, but calmed down in the cafe. I just chilled out and listened to music at the top then as soon as I started the crowds erupted from top to bottom. There were people shouting really bad pronunciations of my name all the way down. There were a few Rory's, one Rudy and a Rugger. I think a lot of people eventually gave up and just shouted Cunningham'."

The teenager skidded to a halt at the finish and dropped to his knees in triumph, as the 10,000-strong crowd went apoplectic and The Proclaimers blasted over the sound system.

Draped in a Saltire and sporting a natty pair of white Oakley shades, he proceeded to soak in the acclaim of the partisan crowd as a deafening wave of klaxons and whistles resounded around the foot of Aonach Mor.

"I crossed the line and I heard the commentator shout: BRITISH world champion'. I threw my goggles into the crowd and then I realised I had just been given them yesterday," he said with a laugh.

As he pushed his way through the heaving throng, the British No.1 and downhill legend Steve Peat leaned over and hugged him. He could have been passing on the torch of British downhill riding.

"All the pressure was on him because he qualified fastest and was out last but he held it together great," reflected a beaming Peat, who finished well down the field in the elite final after losing his saddle. Not even the Sheffield rider has managed to win a world title during his illustrious career.

Cunningham is a product of the massive growth in popu-larity in Scotland of mountain biking, which is now challenging to be one of the country's biggest participation sports and is a key component in marketing the country overseas. The 18-year-old came along to the World Cup at Fort William in 2003 as a "fat little kid" but left having caught the bug.

He started this year with no sponsorship but has gradually started to interest companies as his results have improved. He bought his own bike for £3000 last year, pocket change when considering that some of the elite men's bikes can cost up to £50,000 to develop. With the junior world conquered, he will turn senior next year. After yesterday's heroics, sponsors will be beating a path to his door. An illustrious career awaits.