Posted by Editoress on 09/9/17
Switzerland dominated the final day of XCO competition on Saturday at the Mountain Bike World Championships in Cairns, sweeping all three titles on offer. Nino Schurter defended his title in the Elite men's race, Jolanda Neff took the Elite women's title and Sina Frei was the victor in the Under-23 women's competition. Emily Batty had the top Canadian result with seventh in Elite women, sprinting at the finish despite crashing on the final lap and gashing her knee open.
The dry and hot dusty conditions added to the difficulty riders faced on the 4.3 kilometre circuit through the rainforest of the Smithfield Park. Organizers watered the worst sections of the course overnight and for the first two races the dust was more manageable, but by the Elite men's race it was back to thick, choking dust.
Frei, the European champion, took control on the start loop of the Under-23 race, with her usual rival Kate Courtney of the USA mired back in the mid-20s after a crash. Frei was joined by Anna Tauber of the Netherlands for the first lap and a half until her Dutch rival had a mechanical problem, dropping her out of contention. Courtney was moving up through the field, but Frei was putting in faster laps, and took the title with a 49 second gap over the American. Alessandra Keller took the bronze medal for Switzerland. Soren Meeuwisse was the top Canadian, in 16th place after moving up steadily all race. Anne Julie Tremblay suffered mechanical problems on the start loop and finished 23rd.
Soren Meeuwisse was the top Canadian
"Today was my best World-class level race and things finally came together for me," said Meeuwisse. "I've had some bad luck at Worlds in the past so I'm ecstatic to finally feel strong at this World Championships. I had a good start, which set me up well for the rest of the race because it's very hard to pass on this course with the long single track climbing. I was just focusing on holding my ground on the long climb, and using my strengths in the technical and flow sections to gain time on riders. I felt like my energy sustained over the race and I was so happy to finish in 16th as a second year U23!"
The Elite women's race saw a group of seven form at the front, with Neff and Annie Last of Great Britain setting the pace. That initial lead group included both Batty and Catharine Pendrel The pair dropped everyone else by the end of the first lap and rode together until the fourth lap, when Neff attacked, quickly opening a 22 second gap. By the penultimate fifth lap the gap was up to two minutes and Neff could coast to her first Elite title. Last took the silver medal, while Pauline Ferrand Prevot of France, the 2015 world champion, took bronze.
"I just wanted to win it so much," admitted Neff. "The last three years I couldn't win the World Champs, it has been three years since my last win [as an Under-23]. Coming into this race, for the first time, I knew I was kind of healthy and that things could be. I wanted to win it so badly, I just wanted to go at every chance I could get. I just pushed from start to finish. I am over the moon. I am so happy."
As Pendrel started to struggle, eventually finishing 27th, Batty continued to chase with a group containing Ferrand Prevot, Maja Wloszczowska and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa. The group splintered with Batty settling into seventh, which she held to the finish, although a crash on the final descent led to a sprint finish with Corina Gantenbein of Switzerland. Haley Smith continued her strong season since joining the Elite ranks, with a steady climb from the mid-30s to finish 16th. Sandra Walter was 30th, Cindy Montambault 37th and Rebecca Beaumont 41st.
"I don't what to think," admitted Smith. "I've never been inside the top-20 before and to do a top-20 ... I know it's not a podium result, but it's absolutely huge for me, so I don't know how to process it. But I'm really happy! I had a crappy start loop and actually crashed in the first couple of laps, but I just stayed focussed and moved through people. I couldn't have hoped for a season this good; this is a big jump for me, and I'm very happy to end the year on this note."
Coming into the Elite men's race, Schurter was the overwhelming favourite after dominating the World Cup all season - setting a record by winning all six rounds. The race quickly became a battle between Schurter and 2012 Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic. Henerique Avancini of Brazil and Thomas Litscher of Switzerland bridged up to join them on the third lap, with the Brazilian dropped a lap later, leaving Kulhavy against two Swiss riders. However, it wasn't until the final climb on the last lap, when Schurter attacked and Kulhavy made a mistake in a corner, that the Swiss rider was finally able to get away, hanging on to win by a slim seven seconds. Kulhavy finally dropped Litscher in the final kilometre to take silver. It was Schurter's sixth Elite title - a record.
"It was a really tough one," said Schurter, "Jaroslav was super strong today. I was lucky Thomas was always with us and I was able to leave him the work of leading, and luckily Jaroslav wasn't there at the finish. That last uphill was really hard work and I was glad we were a strong team. I was already from last season super stoked and now this year is even better. I can't believe it, it is going so well at the moment. I am at the pinnacle of my career and I am really enjoying it."
"Yes, it has been an incredible year. I've won seven [six World Cups and the world title] but also the Cape Epic. This year it all came together. It is possible with an amazing team around me. With the Scott SRAM team and the Swiss Cycling team I have the best support, the fastest bike and that makes it possible."
Schurter also pointed to the Swiss development program for the strength of the nation in mountain biking, "Switzerland is the perfect bike country to ride the mountain bike. We have many great locations to ride. We have an awesome Swiss Cup for the development of young riders, kids can start racing at seven years old, and then follow up to the pros. It's so important that we have so many youngsters coming up."
Leandre Bouchard was Canada's top performer, finishing 24th. Andrew L'Esperance was 44th, Derek Zandstra 45th, Evan McNeely 46th and Raphael Gagne 52nd.
"It was pretty lucky on the start," said Bouchard, " I had some space to move up and the start was really important. So I was able to move up quickly and then protect my place. I'm really happy with this race because I had almost no errors; it was the most dusty race of my life! You are just eating dust by the first lap. I did my first top-20 in the World Cup here last year, so I knew I could do well, and so I was looking for a top-25. It's good to end the season like this."
Team Canada Head Coach Dan Proulx, summarized the project positively: "We had a great Worlds team this year - new energy and enthusiasm! The highlight was Holden Jones's bronze medal! The team really impressed me with their effort level. They gave everything. Amongst our team there were several massive improvements in performance - Haley Smith, Marc Andre Fortier, Quinton Disera, Soren Meeuwisse, Andrew L'Esperance. Overall, it was a race where at least one Canadian in every category was strong and competitive. That bodes well for the future. The ones who performed best are just getting started in their careers as high performance athletes."
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