April 22/07 6:41 am - Houffalize World Cup: XC report & photos
Posted by Editoress on 04/22/07
Houffalize World Cup 2007 Belgium
Coverage sponsored by Maxxis, and Vélirium
Photos: Women's XC, Men's XC
The 2007 edition of the Mountain Bike World Cup got underway on Sunday in the classic Belgian host town of Houffalize. Proving the pundits wrong, both defending men's and women's champions were beaten, allowing new riders to don the blue Leader's Jersey. China's Chengyuan Ren (China National team), the 2006 U23 World Cup and World Champion, won the first World Cup ever by her country, a few metres in front of world champion and defending World Cup champion Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan Merida), while José Hermida (Multivan Merida) overcame mechanical problems and a crash with the lead motorcycle to beat Julien Absalon (Orbea) for the men's title.
While it rarely rains at the Houffalize World Cup, normally the riders will face either a combination of dry dusty sections interspersed with mud and wet roots in the woods. However, the region is experiencing one of the warmest springs in memory, and there was no mud. To make up for that was dust, lots and lots of dust. Add to this the extremely large fields for both men (231) and women (125), and it meant that anyone who wasn't in the first few riders spent a lot of time choking.
To spread the field out before the single track, a starting half lap was inserted; a long paved climb of over 16%. Of course, with everyone battling to stay at (or get to) the front, it just became a lungbusting uphill sprint.
Marga Fullana (Spiuk-Tau Ceramica), revelling in the heat, the climbs and the (relative) lack of technical sections, bolted off the front in the women's four lap (plus start loop). She was marked by Dahle-Flesjaa, Ren and Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Haywood), the two-time World Cup winner last year who was an unknown quantity, since she has not raced so far this year.
Fullana and Dahle-Flesjaa see-sawed over the lead for the first two full laps, with Ren just a few seconds behind. Sabine Spitz (Ghost international) was chasing solo at one minute, with Premont dropping back a further 30 seconds to ride with two more Chinese riders - Jingjing Wang and Ying Liu. - while the rest of the field fell further behind.
Fullana opened a small 15 second gap on the third lap, but by the start of the final circuit, Dahle-Flesjaa and Ren had caught and dropped the Spanish rider. Spectators were already witnessing something unusual - Dahle-Flesjaa was not out on her own, cruising to another victory - and it was about to get even more unique, as the duo came through the final corner onto the finishing straight with Ren a few metres in front of a clearly disappointed world champion. Crossing the line, Ren permitted herself one small smile, and briefly raised her arms, marking a historic moment in the world of mountain biking.
Through a translator, Ren made a few remarks - "I am very honoured to win because Gunn-Rita is a true champion. I know that this is just one victory." - before being shepherded away by her coach.
Spitz hung on for fourth, followed by Jingjing Wang for the final podium spot. Premont came in just behind, followed by the third chinese rider to crack the top ten - Ying Liu. U.S. national and Pan American champion Georgia Gould (Luna) made an impressive ride up from 40th on the start grid to finish eighth.
Dahle-Flesjaa pointed out that "second is not too bad at a World Cup; the problem is that people expect me to always win, and that is not possible. I did my best; I had to fight all day for this position. It is not surprising to me that the Chinese riders did so well here because they get better and better every year."
- Premont was not too upset about finishing just off the podium - at home they received some 70 centimetres of snow in the last three weeks, so training on a mountain bike has been difficult. "This is my first race of the season, so I am very happy with how well I did. There is so much snow at home that I have not been able to ride my mountain bike, and my technical skills are not there yet. But I know now that I am not too far back from the leaders, and I will be back up there next time. The speed in the first two laps was just a bit to much for me right now, but it will come by Offenburg (the next World Cup)."
- Kiara Bisaro (Opus) rode consistently around 20th for most of the day, finishing in that position, while Sandra Walter (Felt XO) had the ride of her career to finish 26th; at one point she was as high as 21st before sliding a bit in the final lap. Walter has been based in Switzerland this spring, racing the Swiss Powercup series, and credits her new found results to confidence. "I rode a Swiss Powercup a little while ago and finished ninth against all the same girls, so I knew that I could do it. I had a good start and was able to move up maybe 40 spots on the climb."
The men's race at the world Cup is usually a more open affair, with anyone of half a dozen riders with a chance to win on a given day. However, it was World and World Cup champion Absalon who was the smart bet. Absalon has been so consistent over the past few seasons, that it takes a rider who is really on his game to beat him. Today that rider was José Hermida.
Local Belgian favourite (and former Houffalize winner) Roel Paulissen got hopes up when he took the lead on the first half loop (before five full laps), but a mechanical pushed him back in the field, where he spent the day chasing back to an extremely respectable fourth. At that point, Hermida, Absalon and perennial fast starter Fredrik Kessiakoff (Cannondale-Vredestein) separated themselves from the rest of the field.
By the second lap Hermida was 30 seconds up on Absalon, with Kessiakoff fading at 50 seconds. U23 world champion Nino Schurter (Swisspower) was well back in fifth, however, Christoph Sauser (Specialized) was making a strong ride up through the field from 18th, and would eventually move into third, ahead of Paulissen while Kessiakoff managed to hold onto the fifth and final podium spot.
Hermida was 45 seconds clear and riding strongly by the end of lap three, but halfway through the next lap Absalon was back up with Hermida. Was the Spanish rider cracking? No, "José had a problem with a stuck chain, that is why I caught him", explained Absalon. "I attacked but he was too strong and came back to me."
It wasn't the end of Hermida's troubles: "After I catched back up to Julien, we caught the (lead) moto on the downhill and he crashed, like a metre in front of me, so I crashed into him! When I looked at my bike, it was under the moto, so I thought that was it, but the spectators pulled the moto off my bike and it was okay."
"In the final lap I was afraid of Julien, because he is such a good rider, but I could see him having problems in the downhills so I attacked there and was able to keep the gap. I didn't expect to win today, it was the sort of day you always dream of having, and to have it here in Houffalize - I have always dreamed of winning here, so words cannot properly describe it."
- Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) was the top North American, moving up from 55th on the start grid to a strong 12th place by the finish. Other North Americans struggled, with Todd Wells (GT) the best placed U.S. rider in 36th.
"I was moving up all race" explained Kabush "but it definitely wasn't as much as I had hoped for. I didn't make up the time on the hill like I wanted to, and it was hard to get places to pass. I know now that if I start top-10 I can do better and possibly be on the podium."
- Max Plaxton (Rocky Mountain-Haywood) had a disappointing day, finishing 98th. Plaxton was as high as the low 40s in the early going, but started to slide back and then suffered a flat to put him right out of the points. Kris sneddon (Kona) started well back in the 130s, but moved up steadily all race to finish 81st