Posted by Editoress on 05/21/06
Spa-Francorchamps World Cup
Reports made possible with the support of Vélirium Mountain Bike Festival
A muddy, muddy day at Spa, Belgium for the third round of the cross-country Mountain Bike World Cup on Sunday. Although it was overcast, the rain mostly held off during racing, however, weeks of rain left the ground soggy. Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) and Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agos) padded their respective leads in the women's and men's series by taking victories at Spa. They proved that it doesn't matter whether the track is fast and hard - like Madrid last weekend - or muddy with lots of running - like this weekend - they are the class of the pro cadre.
The women faced three and a half laps of the 5.5 kilometre circuit, with the first shortened lap mostly on pavement. The riders headed from the start up a climb on the famed Formula One track and straight out for almost two kilometres before swinging onto the course for the descent back to the start. This was changed from the original course also - the mud bog that had developed over the past few days of training and Junior/Master racing meant that the far end of the course was effectively unrideable, so the organizers shifted the racers onto a paved service road beside the course for much of the way back.
The start was almost a road race, with riders fighting for position on the wide track before they entered the narrow trail at the turn around.
"The start was very hard" agreed Dahle. "Everyone was fighting for position, and it was into the wind. You wanted to get protection, but you had to stay at the front to get a good position when we went into the trail."
Dahle got the hole shot, which she had been hoping for: "I knew that Irina (Kalentieva) loved this course, she is good in the mud, and so light that she would float over it, while I am heavier and would be slowed down more. So, it was good to get a gap at the beginning."
Dahle then began to steadily open a gap on the chasers, eventually finishing more than two minutes in front of Kalentieva. Behind the front two, there was some jockeying for position on the first lap, with Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) recovering from a poor start to move into third, just ahead of Sabine Spitz (Specialized), Lene Byberg (Bikin' Cyprus International) and Nina Gohl (Multivan Merida).
Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects), usually a strong rider in these tough conditions, was in the top-five on the start loop but had to stop to unlock a frozen fork, losing at least 15 places. Sydor would ride up through the field all race to finish ninth.
Premont admitted that the road start and the reduction of mud hurt her chances: "I had a poor start, I don't like all the people pushing and racing so tight, so I lost places. I hate that kind of fast pack start, but the others were very strong on the road. And it would have been better for me I think if they had left the mud parts in like two days ago. But, I still had a good race, even thought there was so much running, and it helps to make up for last week (when a flat with just over a lap to go took her out of second place)."
Premont rode consistently in third to finish a minute down on Kalentieva, while Spitz dropped Byberg in the final lap to take the final podium spot. China's surprisingly strong Espoir rider, Ren Cheng Yuan, finished 11th and took over the lead in the Espoir competition - the first time a Chinese rider has held a leader's jersey in the World Cup.
Dahle has a perfect record in the series, with 750 points, but it is still tight for the next four spots, with only 85 points separating Spitz in second from Premont in fifth. One poor result will rearrange the standings considerably.
Sydor improves to 11th in the overall standings, with Kiara Bisaro (Team R.A.C.E.) dropping to 23rd after managing only 29th today. Wendy Simms (Velo Bella-Kona) moves up to 37th overall, after a strong 16th place today. Simms was with the leaders for the first lap, but had to drop back on the second and third lap after front derailleur problems.
- Premont was full of praise for the '07 XTR group she is running. "There were no problems with shifting or breaking, it was great all day, and today was a very tough test."
She also said that she will definitely NOT be eating mussels in Fort William - last year a bad batch knocked her out of the World Cup Final there, dropping her from second to third overall in the final rankings. "No, I will not eat mussels again, that is for sure!"
- Sydor's fork stuck in the locked position (ie, no travel) before the technical sections, so she had to stop and "The fork jammed so I had to stop at the top of the hill and fiddle with it until I managed to get it unlocked. When I got it unlocked, I left it that way. At least 20 riders passed me, but it just shows how strong the competition is now - a few years ago I would have only lost a couple of spots. The depth of the women's field is so strong that it takes a lot of energy to pass and make up spots."
The 250-strong men's field meant that there was a huge scramble on the opening half lap of the five and a half lap race to get to the front. Filip Meirhaeghe (Versluys) and Ralph Näf (Multivan Merida) managed to enter the singletrack at the front of a very long line, with Absalon, Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), Roel Paulissen (Giant) and round one winner Bart Brentjens (Giant) just behind.
Missing from this front group were three key riders: Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Liam Killeen (Specialized) and Thomas Frischknecht (Swisspower). All three are strong in muddy and technical conditions. All three were caught out by the start, with Sauser going down and Frischknecht tangling wheels with another rider.
Frischknecht abandoned after a couple of laps (he had fallen right to the very back), but Sauser and Killeen charged up through the field, each passing over a hundred riders in the process, to finish 7th and 22nd respectively. Sauser's ride was particularly impressive - he moved up into the 30's by the third lap, flatted, chased again up to within sight of Paulissen and Brentjens, who were riding for fifth, flatted again on the last lap and still managed to finish seventh.
"I had a really bad start. Sometimes when it is cold I can't push, and this was a really fast start, so I couldn't move with so many riders there. The first two laps I went nowhere, there was very little space to move up. On the third lap I could go better, but then I had a flat. On the final lap I was in sight of Roel and Bart when I flatted again, so it was a hard day."
Meirhaeghe dropped back a bit on the second lap to fourth, while NÃƒÂ¤f opened a small 15 second gap on Absalon and Hermida. Absalon was doing all the chasing, while Hermida got a free ride to his team mate. NÃƒÂ¤f was passed by the other two on the third lap when he flatted on the descent, but he admitted that he would have been caught anyway.
"On the steep downhill my front wheel went into a hole and I punctured (front). But that wasn't the problem, I would have been caught anyway - Julien was the strongest. It was not my plan to start in front, but I saw that I had a gap so I just wanted to hang on for top three."
Hermida revealed after the race that he, too, had suffered a flat. It was late in the race, so he just rode the wheel in. "It was a great race. It is always difficult to fight Absalon because he is such a great champion. I just tried to stay on his wheel when we passed Ralph, but I couldn't stay when he attacked, and then I received a flat with one and a half laps to go. It was a slow leak, so I decided to ride it in to the finish, but by the time I crossed the line the tire was flat."
Absalon dropped Hermida on the fourth lap and managed to stay clear to solo in for his second victory in two weeks. Absalon's margin was only 27 seconds by the finish, and Hermida was still looking strong as he crossed the line - so the men's World Cup title is by no means wrapped up for Absalon.
"At the beginning I was a little bit worried, yes" agreed Absalon. "It was not a tactical race today, just who could race the technical parts and who could run. I began at the front with Ralph, but it wasn't possible for me to keep that speed. I thought that at that speed he would have problems afterwards."
The top North American finisher was once again Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) in 16th place. Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) started strong, finishing the start loop in 7th, but then began to struggle with the running, eventually finishing 47th.
"Like last week, if you miss the train off the start, then you can't catch up." commented Horgan-Kobelski. "None of my World Cups have gone according to plan yet, but that's the way it is. I'm just super impressed by the guys who do it week in, week out."
Kabush admitted that his problem was the running: "I read the start well - I just surfed the wave at the front. I felt comfortable up there, but after that, when I tried to settle in, I couldn't get a rhythm. I like to ride my bike more, so I was struggling. I realized after that that I just had to ride my own race and try to get some (World Cup) points."
- The Belgian crowd was generally supportive of Meirhaeghe, although there was one group yelling 'Dope, Dope' when he went by. The former world champion, coming off a 15 month suspension for EPO use recognized that he would come in for criticism. "The boo's were expected, I knew they would happen. Those people have negative energy, and I don't accept that energy. But I think 99% of the people were supportive."
"Today was amazing - at the beginning of the season I was hoping for one top-10. Today was the course where I hoped to get that result, because I knew that this course was perfect for me - technical and wet. I was nervous at the start, because I knew that I could do well here."
Absalon was asked about Meirhaeghe being on the podium. The world and Olympic champion was hesitant to say too much, but did admit "when he finished (retired) it was honest, and I thought that was good, but now he is back, and his suspension, I think it was so short, too short."
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