Posted by Editor on 04/19/08
Houffalize World Cup Preview
The Mountain Bike World Cup season opens tomorrow at the classic Houffalize venue in the south east corner of Belgium. This is always one of the most hotly contested races, but this year every World Cup takes on extra importance because of Olympic qualifying. Almost every country has designated results from the five World Cups and World Championships as the final selection criteria for Beijing.
The field here is huge - 260 men and 121 women registered. It has been raining here during the week, and the snow has only just disappeared from the upper slopes, so the ground is pretty soggy. Defending men's champion Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida) said "the mud is pretty sticky, so it will be slow in places I think. Even if it dries up like it is supposed to for tomorrow, after all the racing [today] it will still be tacky."
The circuit is very similar to last year, with a steep paved climb to start leading into a short half-lap opener, followed by an expected four laps for the women and six for the men.
In the women's race it will be interesting to see how well Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida) has come back from her enforced season off, after a mysterious and debilitating illness forced her off her bike after the second World Cup last year. In a German Bundesliga race last weekend she was leading Sabine Spitz (Ghost) for two laps and then pulled out on the third - so she may have the speed but not the endurance.
As usual, the top contenders will be World and World Cup champion Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), Canada's Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain), the defending champion from Houffalize - Chengyuan Ren (China) - plus Spitz and Marga Fullana (Massi). Fullana will be back in elite action for the first time after being forced to prematurely end her season last year when she had a high haematocrit prior to the world championship race in Scotland.
There is also a large contingent of Canadians on hand; besides Premont, starting 2nd; Kiara Bisaro (Opus) 17th; Catharine Pendrel (Luna) 19th; Sandra Walter (X.O. Felt) 27th; Wendy Simms (Kona) 39th; Amanda Sin 59th; Mical Dyck 60th and Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain) 90th.
However, we have learned that Sydor is a confirmed no-start, after getting sick this week. According to team manager Peter Vallance: "Alison had a bad tooth infection last week and had to have it pulled a few days ago in Freiburg. She had a bad reaction and infection after the tooth was pulled and was in great discomfort with lots of swelling until today. Apparently she is in the 2% of people with this kind of result to the tooth being pulled. Bad luck."
On the men's side, the huge field makes having a good start position critical. Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) managed to work his way up to a superb 12th place finish last after starting in the 70's, which is part of the reason he is now in the much better position of starting 17th, on the second row. The big guns on the front row include defending Houffalize champion Hermida, World and World Cup champion Julien Absalon (Orbea) - who, interestingly enough, has never won at Houffalize - Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Roel Paulissen (Cannondale -Vredestein), Fredrik Kessiakoff (Full Dynamix), U23 world champion Jakob Fuglsang (Cannondale-Vredestein) and Filip Meirhaeghe (Versluys). Hermida, Sauser, Paulissen and Meirhaeghe are all former Houffalize champions.
The Canadian contingent - besides Kabush - includes Seamus McGrath (Fuji), starting 29th; Max Plaxton (Rocky Mountain) 49th; Ricky Federeau 55th; Derek Zandstra 72nd; Mat Toulouse (Maxxis) 106th and Kris Sneddon (Kona) 112th.
Specialized star Liam Killeen, coming back from a season where he struggled before finally beginning to show his old form at the end of the year, is starting a distant 132nd, and points to Kabush's ride last year for his inspiration. "I'm just going to work on a good start and an improved starting position for Offenburg [next week]."
Racing begins at 10:30 am local time (4:30 am EDT) for the women, followed by the men at 2:00 pm local (8:00 am EDT). We will have our usual lap-by-lap coverage starting with the women's race.
- There is a significant controversy going on about the potential start of the Fumic brothers Lado and Manuel (both Fumic Bros. International). The German pair - who are the top ranked German men and the most likely to get the Olympic spots - have not been submitting the required forms detailing their whereabouts for out-of-competition testing for the past two quarters (October 2007 - March 2008). After receiving a warning (after the first quarter), they were then automatically suspended last Monday (April 14th) for three months. However, they are thought to be appealing the suspension, and are therefore on the start list for tomorrow. Many riders are saying off the record that they should not start and accept the suspension, which would effectively end their chances of qualifying for Beijing.
- Merida and GT both had bikes stolen in the last few days, with Merida losing 12 last night from a locked garage as staff slept in a team vehicle in front. The only bike not taken was Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa's, since hers was in her room.
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