Posted by Editoress on 04/10/06
The 2006 Sea Otter Classic ended Sunday with the traditional cross-country stage of the four stage mountain bike race. While the new points omnium system pretty well guaranteed that Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan Merida) and Jean Christoph Peraud (Orbea) would take the overall titles, there was still a battle underway for second, third and fourth places in the general classification, plus the bragging rights of winning the most prestigious stage of the race.
The rain which had been threatening for the entire weekend moved in just as the stage began, but it was more of a steady drizzle than a downpour. Plus, large portions of the circuit were on sandy sections or hard pack, so it wasn't the mud fest that the riders faced in the Super XC and Short Track stages.
Dahle-Flesjaa took her third win in four stages for the women's race, but the men's event saw Commonwealth Games champion Liam Killeen (Specialized) ride away from the field for the men's victory; overtaking Bart Brentjens for second in the overall standings in the process. Canada had two women on the podium for the stage - Kiara Bisaro (Gearsracing.com) and Wendy Simms (Velo Bella-Kona), with Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) finishing third in the GC and Bisaro jumping up to fifth overall. Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) finished ninth on the stage and tenth overall, outsprinting Max Plaxton (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects), who was 11th in the GC.
The race is a rarity in cross-country these days - a long course (30.5 kilometres) that has only two laps. The route takes riders out into the Fort Ord recreation area on a rolling circuit that challenges them in every way - climbs, descents, soft sand, pavement and, given the soggy conditions, mud. The circuit is a new one from previous years, but the riders seem well pleased with it; Kiara Bisaro pronounced it "a fun and challenging course."
The first lap saw Chris Jongewaard (Australian National) get off to his usual patented fast start in the men's race, followed by an elite group of the top contenders - Killeen, his team mates Christoph Sauser and marathon specialist Alban Lakata, Peraud, Brentjens, Jose Hermida (Mulitvan Merida), a pair of Americans - Todd Wells (GT) and Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-VW) - Michael Weiss (SRM Simplon) and two Canadians - Kabush and Plaxton.
Killeen and Lakata bridged up to Jongewaard late in the first lap, and were about to drop him when Lakata suffered a biomechanical problem - one of his contacts fell out. "It dropped out on (the inside) of my glasses" explained the Austrian. "I had to stop, find it and then use the mirror of a car at the side of the course (one of the check stations) to put it back in."
Lakata powered back up to Jongewaard, but Killeen was gone. He soon dropped the Australian champion for good in the latter half of the final lap (Jongewaard cracked badly, slipping to 12th). Given the wind in some of the open sections, the diminutive Killeen was happy to have his larger team mate with him for the earlier going. "It was windy out there in the open and on the pavement, and Alban was good to have", he acknowledged. "I could shelter behind him."
Lakata was dropped by Killeen on the final climb, but the pair gave Specialized a strong finish to the weekend. Killeen agreed that there was some pressure on the team to perform well, given that the company HQ is just down the road in Morgan Hill, and that Specialized was a presenting sponsor of Sea Otter, and that a big push was being made to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stumpjumper: a museum at the Specialized booth, the riders wearing retro jerseys and riding bikes painted in the bubblegum pink of the original team bikes from the early '80s.
Peraud won the group sprint for third, ahead of Bishop, Brentjens, Sauser, Wells and Hermida, with Kabush and Plaxton following some 45 seconds after. Two other Canadians made the top 20 - Kris Sneddon (Kona Les Gets) in 16th and Mat Toulouse (Maxxis) 17th.
The women's race followed a more predictable pattern, with Dahle-Flesjaa riding off the front in the first lap. However, even Dahle-Flesjaa admitted to being human; waiting until the halfway point in the lap to open a gap, and even then much more slowly than usual.
"Like everyone else, I think my legs are tired from Curacao (World Cup) last week and all the mud here this week. I just had to go at my own pace and not overextend."
Behind, it was Sabine Spitz (Specialized) who rode with Dahle-Flesjaa for the first 30 minutes. Spitz had had a slow start to the weekend - her plane was delayed for hours the night before the stage race began, and she seemed to struggle more than most in the heavy mud which characterized the earlier stages of the race. However, by Sunday the 2003 world champion was firing on all cylinders, and kept Dahle-Flesjaa to less than a minute advantage after the first lap.
"I could see her ahead of me on the climbs, and she would get closer, then see me and put a harder effort in and pull away, and then I would get closer again."
However, fatigue began to claim Spitz also, and in the last half lap the Norwegian world champion opened up a four and a half minute gap by the finish line.
Behind these lead two the field had split up quickly, with Bisaro and Simms taking over third and fourth spots. Recognizing the advantage of working together in the wind, the pair formed an alliance.
"It was great riding with Wendy" said Bisaro. "We worked together really well, and didn't see anyone else for most of the race."
Simms echoed the sentiments, adding "it wasn't until later in the second lap, when I washed out a bit in a corner that Kiara dropped me. She was riding really strongly, so I don't know if I could have stayed with her until the finish."
Alison Sydor and stage two winner Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven) didn't fare as well in the final stage, both dropping back to a second chase group midway into the first lap. McConneloug finished 9th and Sydor 11th, allowing them to preserve their overall standings.
- Most of the pros were critical of the points omnium scoring system, as compared to the usual accumulated time system. The omnium gave equal weight to all four stages, so the second stage 4-5 minute time trial counted for just as much as the two and a half hour cross-country. It also meant that, barring accidents, the winner for both the men's and women's category was decided before the final stage took place. In the past, the winner was determined by the cross-country.
"It wasn't very well thought out" said Killeen. "To compare the time trial to this (cross-country) isn't right. Even if they weighted the stages differently it would be something."
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