Posted by Editoress on 04/1/06
MTB World Cup #1 Curacao
Reports made possible by the support of MAXXIS tires and Gestev
The 2006 World Cup cross-country season opened today on the Caribbean island of Curacao, with Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) continuing her winning ways in the women's field, and course designer Bart Brentjens (Giant) taking a popular win in the men's race, in front of a swimsuit clad crowd on the beach. Both Dahle and Brentjens don the leader's jerseys for the World Cup series. Top North American performers were Canadians Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) in 4th for the women, and Seamus McGrath (Canadian National) 9th in the men.
Heat was expected to be the primary factor in the races and, with the temperature climbing to the low 30's (Celcius), the men's race was shortened from the planned seven laps to six. Many riders spoke of experiencing goosebumps (an early indication of overheating), and most were trying to drink at least a bottle per lap.
The 6.8 kilometre circuit took the riders along a winding figure-8 route. The loose surface and volcanic outcroppings added extra difficulties, forcing the riders to concentrate closely, or risk going off course and either crashing or flatting.
Dahle was one of a number riders who had been sick in the week leading up to the race, but it did not seem to slow her much once the race started. The Norwegian, who is world and Olympic champion, rode away from her competitors shortly after the start loop. However, she did not display her usual dominating style, with Sabine Spitz (Specialized) keeping the gap to under 30 seconds for the first few laps of the five lap race.
Behind the front two there was a bit of a battle developing. Maja Wloszczowska (Lotto) was sitting third going into the single track on the first lap, with Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) fourth. Sydor then recounts that Marga Fullana (Spiuk Illes Balears) knocked her off the track while attempting to pass.
"It was a section of single track where it was impossible to pass, and Marga was asking me to let her by. There was no where to do it, so she pushed past, pushing my into the rocks, where I flatted and bent my seat. We are both experienced riders, and that sort of thing shouldn't happen."
Sydor lost over two minutes and 15 spots, and spent the rest of the race chasing, and passing in the few spots available to finish 11th (Fullana was third).
Meanwhile, Premont was having her own difficulties. "I had a terrible start, and a rider fell into me, knocking both me and Kiara (Bisaro - Canadian National) over. I lost time and positions and had to overpace myself in the second and third laps to get back up."
Premont managed to rocket back up to third, only 1:05 behind Dahle, before having to back off her pace. Premont and Mary McConneloug (Seven Cycles) rode together for the remainder of the race, with Premont dropping the U.S. rider on the final lap.
At the front, Dahle may have looked like she was cruising, but revealed that she was suffering as much as anyone. "I was on the limit the whole way. Having 10 or 20 seconds is nothing in mountain biking, because one flat or crash can change everything. This race was a matter of keeping your own focus, you had to concentrate the whole way around, because a half second of not concentrating would lose you time.
I could feel a little empty after two laps, which scared me, because I made this problem in Mont Ste Anne last year (when she was beaten by Premont). I had goosebumps; I was really pushed to the limit."
Spitz, despite having suffered from the flu the week before, rode a strong steady race for second. "I'm pretty happy, and a little surprised at how good it went. I said to myself before the start that it was important to get a good start and stay close to Gunn-Rita, but not push myself too hard."
American Mary McConneloug took the fifth and final podium spot, after getting held up in the crash which delayed Premont and Bisaro. "I got caught up in it on the first lap, so it made it hard in the single track. I caught up to Maja (Wloszczowska) at the end of the second lap, and I could see Marie-Helene was suffering and slowing, so I was able to catch up to her until she dropped me on the final lap."
In the men's race there were any number of riders in the running for victory, including world and Olympic champion Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agos), Liam Killeen (Specialized), who was fresh of winning the Commonwealth Games title in Melbourne Australia last week, his new team mate (and last year's World Cup champion) Christoph Sauser, Roel Paulissen (Giant), and the Multivan Merida duo of Jose Hermida and Ralph Naf.
Brentjens, a former world champion and Olympic champion, designed the course, and has spent considerable time in Curacao over the past few years, so may have had some slight 'home field' advantage. While that may be true, the Dutch rider put on an impressive display of power, riding to the front on the first lap and holding off a charge by Absalon in the middle of the race.
By the third lap Absalon had joined Brentjens at the front of the race, with Fredrik Kessiakoff (Cannondale Vredstein) sitting third, just in front of Paulissen and the Specialized pair of Killeen and Sauser. Behind them, Naf, Hermida and McGrath were chasing, but steadily losing ground. In the final two laps Naf and Kessiakoff both dropped back and Killeen overtook Paulissen for third.
Brentjens revealed that he had a terrible time with the heat on the second lap, which allowed Absalon to catch up. "The second lap was terrible for me, with the heat - I had chicken skin (goosebumps) and I blew up a bit. So I drank a lot and poured water on my neck, and after the third lap I felt better, in fact my legs began to feel really, really good. I was thinking 'this is a good day for me.' I attacked on the last lap in the single track and got 20 metres right away, so I knew it was possible to win."
Absalon agreed that Brentjens was the stronger rider, and was content with his second place. "He was really powerful, and I maybe did too much at the beginning when I had to catch him. But this is good for me at this time of year, and now I will go back and train for the three World Cups in Europe next month."
Killeen saw his third place as a vindication. "It proves that last week (gold at Commonwealth Games) wasn't a fluke. Roel wouldn't work to help bring me up to (his team mate) Bart, and in the windy open sections this meant that I spent a lot of time on the front."
McGrath, coming off a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, said that his race for a podium spot was over early. "(Lado) Fumic let a gap open on the first lap, and Jose (Hermida) and I couldn't get by for a while. We rode together, but just couldn't close it up after that. But, I'm pretty happy with this. I knew coming off Melbourne that I had the form for top-10, so it was a matter of letting the momentum carry me."
Michael Broderick (Seven Cycles) was the top American rider, finishing 18th, just ahead of Adam Craig (Giant) in 21st. While Broderick had a higher placing in Mont Ste Anne last year, he considers this to be his best career placing. "There's more pride in doing well here, because all the top guys were here; no one missing. It was a fun, technical course, and I just rode it smooth and conservative to avoid crashing."
- Filip Meirhaeghe (Groep Versluys-Sportstech), the former world champion who is returning to the sport after testing positive for EPO in 2004, started well back in the last quarter of the field, but rocketed up to finish 31st - an impressive ride considering how many riders he had to pass.
- Daniel Baal, representing the UCI at the race, had praise for the event. "It is a beautiful location, the parcours (course) is good, the organization was good..." So will the World Cup come back to Curacao? "I cannot promise, but I think so, yes, there is a good chance."
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