It’s one of the defining moments in the history of downhill racing, and of INTENSE. One of the greatest downhill race runs of all time – INTENSE team rider Chris Kovarik’s win at the first ever Fort William World Cup back in 2002. Chris’ victory of 14.02 seconds is still the biggest winning margin the sport has ever seen… it has become part of downhill folklore.
Every downhiller knows Fort William can be a grim old place, but unless you were part of the UK DH scene back in 2002 then the location was pretty much an unknown. A new venue, tucked away at the top of Britain, on a big exposed mountain, on a track that no one had really ridden before – 2.6km long, dropping 525 metres in around five minutes for the quickest.
On that weekend in June riders were greeted with fog, wind and rain sweeping across the upper slopes of granite slabs and bog. Being new and fresh the course was not used to the prolonged abuse of hundreds of tire tracks ripping it up. It soon became littered with big ruts and holes, many with hidden rocks beneath, waiting to catch out the unaware. The start back then was in a different place to where it is now. There was no fancy start hut or boardwalk back then, riders were thrown straight into the slop and good luck to them.
After a few minutes in the open riders would then drop below the treeline – this was now a different beast altogether. This section of more rock and mud was now joined by roots too. It was dark, blown-out and changing almost every run… it was messy. Then to really finish the riders off there was the energy sapping ‘Motorway’ - a long flat’ish pedalling section that spat riders out into the one of the greatest finish arenas in the sport, then a fast and furious drop into thousands of screaming fans to finish. The course was a destroyer of both bikes and bodies, and it demanded the utmost respect.
Australian Chris Kovarik was the star of our INTENSE team back then. He was aggressive on the bike but had a modesty that made him loved by all. He was part of the rapidly emerging crew of Aussie racers that would start to dominate the downhill scene. Even though this was the first race of the international season Chris was riding high – having won the final round of the 2001 World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne and then more recently the Australian National Championships. But the field was stacked: Vouilloz, Pascal, Peat, Hannah, Gracia, Barel, Minnaar… the list of top names was almost endless.
Chris qualified in a very respectable third place, just behind Nico Vouilloz and Steve Peat, but no one could really have predicted what was about to happen – no one could have really seen what was coming. Through the mud, wind and rain Chris came down the mountain in his final’s run a full 14 seconds ahead of the current leader Cedric Gracia. It was unbelievable. Vouilloz would crash, Peaty too. The victory was Kovarik’s.
“I rode on the edge, but smart. Although I was on it, I don’t think it was forced, I just picked different micro lines in the final from my qualifier and they worked. I had a moment in the first wooded section, the ruts had gotten massive. I had no choice but to hit the main rut, which was twice as deep as it was in morning practice. It was a dropping right hander, I hit it foot out, the bottom of my fork legs were scooping up mud. I swear I thought I was going to go over the bars. That section was my main concern, so after that I felt home free. The crowd was so loud coming out of the last woods to the finish, I had no choice but to stand up and sprint. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down.” - Chris Kovarik
2002 was a time before live feeds and instant playbacks so very little actual footage of the race exists today. All we have are a handful of photographs and some wise words. Dirt magazine’s Steve Jones summed up the win beautifully at the time in issue #34:
“If I die tomorrow it will be happy in the knowledge that I witnessed what was probably one of the greatest World Cup wins ever. Chris Kovarik steamrollered the opposition with a mind-blowing display of bike skill and athleticism. With a fiery leg trailing, power sliding performance that really was from another planet. It was total annihilation of the world’s best. The force is strong in this one.”
Seven days later Chris would win again, this time in Maribor, Slovenia. Unfortunately the winning streak would end there, but he would still finish strongly securing his best overall result at the end of the season in third place. Chris, the modest destroyer, would go on to win one more World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne in 2006. He still rides for us today. He will always be #intenseforlife.