Posted by Editoress on 05/30/05
MTB World Cup Story from Houffalize, Belgium
Reports brought to with the support of Human Kinetics Publishers and Gestev
Houffalize is known more for rain and mud then sun and dust, but this weekend riders were wilting in 30-plus degree (Celcius) heat and choking on dust. The heat didn't appear to affect the performance of the two winners, though. Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) took her second consecutive victory over the women's field, and extended her lead over Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) in the series standings, while the men's race saw was a new face on the top step of the podium - Marco Bui (Full Dynamix). Bui stormed away from the field to record his first ever World Cup victory. Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agos), winner of the first two rounds, struggled all day, finishing 17th, but hung on to the leader's jersey.
Dahle was one rider who didn't seem to mind the heat, riding away from the rest of the field with ease on the first climb.
"I got a little gap from the beginning, so I could do my own race. But it was not an easy win. They were chasing me all race, and any small mistakes could have made a big difference. I love winning here, it is one of my favourite races. It is hard going up, and hard going down, but fun to ride all the way around. Kenneth (her husband) and I had made our plan to build for Houffalize in the first part of the season, so it is good to see that everything is on track."
The 6.6 kilometre circuit was unchanged from last year, beginning with a paved climb out of the centre of town, then onto rolling fast double track before the longest climb of the lap. From the top the riders descend immediately, losing all the vertical gain they just struggled for, before finishing the lap with final two kilometres of rolling double track. The track was very dry, very dusty and very fast.
The riders did a shortened first lap, charging up a paved climb before making a sharp right onto the dirt and continuing to climb up the main ascent of the circuit. Once they finished the half lap, it was an additional four full laps for the women, and six for the men.
When Dahle went on the very first climb, Marga Fullana (K2-Zero RH+) was the only rider to try to stay on her wheel, but the Spanish rider quickly dropped back to a chase group, containing Premont, Sabine Spitz (Specialized), Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) and Dahle's team mate Irina Kalentieva. Sydor dropped back from this group to ride her own pace, as did Fullana.
"I was hoping to feel really good today" commented Sydor afterwards, "but I quickly realized that it wasn't going to happen. Last year I suffered late in the race when I went out too hard, too early, so this year I decided to pace myself better."
Spitz then rode Premont and Kalentieva off her wheel on the climb in the first full lap (of four), but suffered from chainsuck on the descent and had to get off her bike, allowing the other two to catch back on.
"It wasn't an attack, I just got out of the saddle on the long climb and rode my own pace. I got a small gap at first and just continued riding my own pace. Then I got the chainsuck on the descending part and had to get off, and Irina and Marie-Helene where able to go past me. I was able to fix it and catch them by the end of the lap. Once I got a gap again, I just rode my own race."
Kalentieva opened a small gap on Premont, which the Canadian could not close, to take third. Premont, who had expressed hopes in Madrid of taking back the overall lead from Dahle, didn't have it.
"I was feeling very good, but they were just so fast today, and the course was not as technical as usual. It was good for me on the technical sections, but I was losing ground on the road. With Irina, I would get close, and then lose ground again. I just couldn't close the gap."
Behind the front four riders, American Mary McConneloug (Kenda) was steadily making her way up through the field after a poor start. McConneloug, the lone U.S. entry in the women's race at the Athens Games, managed to get by a fading Marga Fullana in the third lap to grab the fifth and final spot on the podium - her first ever podium in a European World Cup.
- Kiara Bisaro (GearsRacing.com) was pleased with her 11th place, coming after some sickness that has seen her struggle in the last two World Cups. While Bisaro said that some of the difference was getting over her illness, it was just as much from "finally getting a new bike. It felt different right away. Plus, after so much stress last year, with qualifying for the Olympics, it was hard to get that "killer instinct" back. But, now that the Commonwealth Games criteria have come out, there is that motivation as well. Everything is just starting to come together."
- Many riders are already talking about skipping round six in Brazil, since it involves traveling directly from Mont Ste Anne, Quebec to Brazil, and then back to Angelfire, New Mexico for the following weekend. Dahle says she is committed to doing all the World Cups: "For me, wearing the rainbow jersey, means that I need to do it. I think all of the best riders have a duty to be there, because they (the organizers) have made such an effort. With the rainbow jersey it is important to represent our sport."
- Sabine Spitz is hoping that the trend she has established will continue a the next World Cup in Willingen, Germany. "Now I have fourth (Spa), third (Madrid), second (Houffalize). So, for next week ... I was thinking about it during the race; maybe it will be the time."
- Two Chinese women had very strong rides Ren Chengyuan and Wang Jingjing. At one point both were in the top-10. While they faded towards the end, Chengyuan finished a very credible 15 th. Considering that only two seasons ago Chinese riders were getting lapped within half race distance, these results suggest that they will soon be podium threats.
At every World Cup this season Marco Bui has attacked from the gun, usually opening up a considerable gap on the field in the opening laps. In the first two rounds (Spa and Madrid) he faded badly in the latter half of the race. So, when he charged to the front in the opening lap in Houffalize, observers could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu. This time, however, it was for real - Bui just seemed to get stronger as the race wore on and the chasers faded.
He was assisted somewhat by the misfortunes of a couple of his biggest rivals: Absalon had suffered gastrointestinal problems the night before, and was not racing like the winner of Spa and Madrid, while Christoph Sauser (Siemens Cannondale) rear flatted in the first lap and had to chase his way back up through the field after getting a wheel change in the pit.
These occurrences should not detract from the magnificent ride Bui did pull off. In the first two laps, he was a manageable 20 seconds in front of Sauser (once he rejoined the chasers late in the first lap), Roel Paulissen (Giant), Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Lapierre International), Liam Killeen (Specialized), Fredrik Kessiakoff (Siemens Cannondale) and Lado Fumic (Fumic Bros. Racing).
However, as the race wore on Bui was increasing his lead: 35 seconds after three laps, 45 seconds after four, and then 1:10 ahead of Sauser with a lap and a half to go. Sauser initially thought he had a chance to catch the flying Italian, but admitted that by lap five it was game over:
"I felt strong today, but Bui, he was very strong. Maybe if I had not flatted I could have stayed with him, but maybe not, the way he was riding today. Once it was up to a minute, that was it, there was no chance to catch him."
Sauser managed to hold off a late charging Jose Hermida for second by 11 seconds, with local Belgian favourite Roel Paulissen passing Peraud at the line to salvage Belgian pride.
Bui has struggled since winning the Under-23 world title in 1999, and has been written off by many. His team manager was blunt: "He has had a few years without any results and it is because his mind was not so good, not so focussed. He did too many parties, not enough training. He was not serious enough.
"But this year, Marco was different, I knew that from the beginning. He had technical problems in Spa with his pedals, and Madrid was good, but not perfect. After Madrid he took two weeks with no racing, and was in perfect shape for Houffalize."
Bui, who was jumping for joy after crossing the line, could hardly sit still long enough to talk to the press or for the podium presentation. "I was very strong, and at the beginning was able to take 20 seconds with no problem. But, then my manager said that Sauser was coming up after his trouble, and I had to make a big effort on the fourth lap. The race today was perfect, everything was perfect, and I think that this is my best result, even more than the (U23) title, because I overcome my problems to be here. This is the best moment I could wish for."
- There were no Canadian men in Houffalize, possibly the first time this has ever happened. Max Plaxton, the only Canadian mountain biker based in Europe, is currently riding the road in Spain. Hopefully, this is a one year only phenomenon. . .
- American Adam Craig (Giant) had extra stress before the race, when his bike was stolen out of the team condo during the night while the riders were sleeping. Luckily for him, Giant Europe was able to procure a replacement first thing the next day.
- Julien Absalon, the Olympic and world champion was philosophical after his relatively poor showing due to stomach problems "I'm not disappointed. This track is beautiful but very hard, and you have to be at the front from the beginning to do well. My gastric problem yesterday just meant that I was a little slower today. To keep the jersey, that is all that kept me racing today for the World Cup points, and I did (keep the jersey). I will just take some time this week for a good recovery, and I will be back for Willingen."