June 23/08 4:14 am - 2008 Mountain Bike Worlds
Posted by Editor on 06/23/08
2008 Mountain Bike Worlds - Elite Women & Men XC Story
Coverage brought to you with the assistance of Velirium
The 2008 Mountain Bike World Championships concluded on Sunday with what is considered to be the premier events - the elite men's and women's cross-country races. This week of racing has seen every defending champion in every category and discipline go down to defeat, and the Sunday was no different. Marga Fullana (Spain) returned to the top step of the women's podium for the first time in eight years, while Christoph Sauser led a Swiss sweep of the men's race, finally winning the world title he has been chasing for so long.
The hot, sunny weather that has blessed the area since the second day of the championships continued, although temperatures soaring into the 30's caused many a rider to wilt.
For the women, the conditions, course and length seemed tailor-made for Fullana, who excels in the heat, with courses that include short, sharp climbs, and - most importantly - that are under two hours.
At five laps plus start loop, this was going to be possibly the shortest world championships race on record for the women, with a winning time of 1:39:01. Three riders immediately went to the front - Fullana, 2003 world champion Sabine Spitz (Germany) and defending champion Irina Kalentieva (Russia).
World Cup leader Marie-Helene Premont of Canada chased up to the leaders, but each lap was dropped on the steep climb and had to struggle back. Premont is more a rider for longer races with steady climbs, and gradually fell back as the race moved into the third lap. After dropping back to fifth, the Canadian champion would make a last lap surge to finish fourth.
At the front, Spitz and Fullana were definitely the powerhouses, with Kalentieva just managing to hold on. The Russian has had a hard season - winning the second round of the World Cup in Offenburg, Germany, and then getting a sinus and chest infection which kept her out of the next three rounds of the World Cup. The Worlds was her first race back, and to be among the leaders was a remarkable achievement in itself. On the third lap she was dropped by Fullana and Spitz, and would ride in for the bronze medal.
The race was down to the Spanish and German riders - both former world champions, looking to head into the Olympics as the current world champion. Spitz looked to have power, but this was Fullana's race, as she rode away on the climb on lap four, opening up a gap of 48 seconds by the start of the final lap.
Spitz was solidly in second, followed by Kalentieva, while Premont and Maja Wloszczowska (Poland) were in a battle for fourth. Gunn-Rita Dahle (Norway), the defending Olympic champion who is making a comeback after a year lost due to illness rode steadily in sixth for most of the race until overtaken by a late charge from Catharine Pendrel (Canada), who repeated her sixth place from last year.
Premont went into the race as one of the favourites, after winning the previous World Cup race two weeks early, and leading the World Cup standings. However, the Canadian champion said that the course was more suited to her Spanish rival.
"I knew that this was a course for Marga, with steep climbs and shorter than our usual races. Marga is very fast, but cannot usually go as far in the World Cup races. I tried to chase, but it was too fast for me and I had no time to recover after the climbs."
"But, I am still happy with my race, and the result is the best I could do today. A lot of the women have been skipping the World Cup just to prepare for this race, and have not had as much travel as me - this is my fifth time to Europe and they have to travel only two hours. My preparation for the biggest race, which will happen in two months (Beijing) is where it should be, so I am confident."
Pendrel, who has been on the podium at World Cup races this season, and is almost certain to be named to the Canadian Olympic team with Premont next week, was also pleased with her performance.
"I had one of my worst starts of the year, so I had to chase up hard on the first laps. But the race was good for me overall, and I know that I am close to a podium performance at this level."
Kiara Bisaro was one of a number of riders hit with a cold that has been passing through the Canadian team, and finished 35th. "I knew it would be a hard day because I could barely breath. But it was important for me to finish, after being selected to the Worlds team."
The men's race saw the fall of the seemingly invincible Julien Absalon (France), which should provide hope to his rivals as they all enter their final preparation for the Olympic Games.
Absalon, who has won four consecutive world titles, and skipped the fifth round of the World Cup to prepare for his title defence, struggled all day against the Swiss onslaught. Normally, the Frenchman is content to let others attack in the opening laps of the race while he stays close to the front, waiting for the moment he will launch his devastating attack.
But this year was different. When Sauser and compatriot Florian Vogel attacked on the first lap, Absalon did not immediately respond, allowing the duo to establish a gap of over a minute by the third lap. When no one else responded, Absalon began to chase on his own, initially starting to close the gap, but then exploding spectacularly in the heat and dropping out with a lap and a half to go. This was a weakness we had never seen before.
At the front, Sauser was completely focussed. Riding with Vogel until the late in the second lap, and then rolling away on his own. Eyes fixed on the trail ahead of him, he seemed oblivious to the cheers and exhortations of his Specialized team manager Bobby Behan, who was running up the first climb beside him each lap.
This was Sauser's day, and he was finally going to win the title which had eluded him through his career. Helping his confidence was the new prototype Epic bike he was piloting. A secret weapon he has been training on, the new rig is half a kilo lighter than the already lightest full suspension bike in the field.
It is no secret that Sauser is a weight weenie, and the new bike features the new Specialized fork, as well as rear suspension and a host of other features.
"It is a complete Specialized suspension," explained Behan. "Stiffer and lighter than the previous model, and this is the first time it has ever been raced. Christoph is technology driven, and he is always working with the engineers. I am sure it gave him both a psychological and physical boost in the race."
With Sauser off the front, and Vogel solidly in second, the only race left was for the bronze medal. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Sweden) was the first to chase the two Swiss riders, but couldn't maintain the pace, and was overtaken by Absalon on the fourth lap. He continued to fade, eventually finishing fifth. as spectators saw a remarkable race within the race by both Ralph Naef (Switzerland) and Liam Killeen (Great Britain).
Naef has been struggling all season, while Killeen is coming back from a 'lost' season of illness. The Swiss rider initially dropped to 38th by the second lap after a slow start, but subsequently recovered in the second half of the race to move into fifth by lap five and then third a lap later to take the final podium spot.
"I couldn't start fast because it was so hot," explained Naef. "I was just suffering. I had not so many races in the last weeks. It was hot. I put water over me and I just went. I think it was good I didn't go over the limit in the heat at the start."
Killeen's ride was even more remarkable - starting in the seventh row he moved up 50 spots in the first lap, top fifth by the third lap and eventually to fourth on lap six, where he finished.
"That was really good," commented Killeen. "Since Fort William (World Cup) I've felt better every day, and this was the best I've felt in two years. After the Team Relay [where he recorded the fastest lap time], I knew how hard I could go. Today, starting so far back, was just a case of being strong mentally, and I'm pretty chuffed. To finish top five in elite is something."
Canadian champion Geoff Kabush entered the race with high hopes, but also suffering from a cold, which he said affected his breathing. However, the main problem was traffic on the first lap of the race.
"Some riders were riding like idiots in the first lap, and I got hit by a lot of elbows, so I didn't get the start I wanted to and lost a lot of places. I just rode my own race, and moved up steadily. A lot of riders started to blow in the heat and came back to me in the second half of the race, so I was able to move up. I was hoping for top ten, but this is still a pretty good result."
Seamus McGrath started well, and was in the top fifteen until mechanical problems in the second lap forced a stop in the tech zone. "I was riding well, feeling all right until I had a mechanical problem with my front derailleur. I wanted to at least try and ride top ten I see how it felt and how I could do. After that, there wasn't any chance to move back up, so I just tried to get a decent spot ... you can't control things when you have a mechanical. I rode steady for the rest of the race so I wouldn't blow."
Canada's other two starters had problems and had to drop out. Derek Zandstra and Max Plaxton started back midfield, but had worked their way up together to the low 40's when Zandstra's rear derailleur broke on lap four. Plaxton was into the top thirty and still moving up when he crashed on a technical section on lap five.
"I came out of a section and into a corner too hot and lost it, and hit a tree hard. I hit my ribs really hard and couldn't ride for at least 20 minutes."
- The Worlds were the last selection race for the Canadian Olympic mountain bike squad. While the selection will not be made public until sometime this week, according to CCA officials, it is pretty clear who will be going. On the women's side, Premont is automatic after her bronze at the 2006 Worlds, and Pendrel is the only other Canadian to get a top-12 in the World Cup this year. On the men's side, Kabush and McGrath are the only two to have top-16 results at a World Cup, so that pretty much assures their spots also.
- This Worlds was Swiss legend Thomas Frischknecht's final one. The 1996 cross-country world champion and Olympic silver medalist finished 27th. Frischi is the only rider to have ridden every Worlds since the first official one in 1990. When asked how he felt about finishing his last Worlds, he replied "Tired".
"I'm glad to see three Swiss riders on the podium, it is pretty amazing to see. But, I think it is too bad that only three get to go (selectors have to choose between Sauser, Vogel, Naef and U23 world champion Nino Schurter). I think that they should all be able to go, and that the UCI should give an extra position."
- There were a lot of people unhappy with Fullana's win, given her suspension at last year's Worlds for high haematocrit, and previous brushes with doping controls. "We would have been happier with a different champion," said one anonymous source.