Posted by Editoress on 04/11/09
Day 1 of the 2009 Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, was a resounding success, with exciting racing, perfect weather and enthusiastic crowds turning out for both the Cross Country and 4-Cross events.
The women's race saw a new face at the front - Austria's Elisabeth Osl (Ghost), who had previously medaled in the Junior ranks at the Worlds, but had never reached the podium in a World Cup. Today was definitely her day, as she rode away from the field to finish over two minutes clear of Olympic bronze medalist Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon). Norway's Lene Byberg (Specialized) made a late surge to take third.
Osl and American national champion Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven) took the lead on the first lap of the five lap race, and then Osl increased the pace, forcing McConneloug to drop back.
"I was first into the singletrack," said Osl "and I was thinking 'Come and catch me', but they never did."
They never did, because Osl clocked the fastest lap times for each and every lap of the race, with her first lap the only sub-19 minute lap of the race, and the rest sub-21 minutes.
"This was fantastic," exclaimed a tearful Osl afterwards. "I cannot believe it. I won a Swiss Cup race last weekend, but I never thought that I could win a World Cup! I changed my trainer of six years over the winter, and my team. I spent more time working on my power and it has made a difference. I had nothing to lose, so I just rode my best."
Kalentieva also overtook McConneloug before the end of the first lap, who dropped back to join compatriot Willow Koerber (Subaru-Gary Fisher). Koerber soon drifted back, eventually finishing just off the podium in sixth place, but McConneloug continued to battle for third. However, the heat and fast early pace took their toll, with Byberg and world champion Marga Fullana passing her in the fourth lap.
Fullana had been expected to contest for the win, however, a crash early in the first lap derailed that plan.
"I did not go down in the crash," Fullana explained "but I was stuck behind it and then had to chase very hard in the first laps. But, I am happy to be on the podium here. For me, this is still part of building up for my main goal - the Madrid World Cup."
Byberg, who had a slow start, kept getting quicker through the race, recording the second fastest lap splits (behind Osl) for each of the last two laps, and moving to within 30 seconds of Kalentieva before backing off slightly in the final few kilometres. Byberg's third equals her best ever previous result at Mont Ste Anne last year.
"My riding style is always to start a little slower, but today I started stronger than usual and was in the top six on the first lap. I needed to find the right pace, because you could really feel the heat. Once I got on Marga's wheel, I knew it was important to stay with her on the climbs, because she is really strong there. I didn't realize that I was so close to irina, but it was just too short a distance to catch her for second."
The men's seven lap race started with an explosive 16 minute first lap, and the pace never really faded. Canada's Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) led on the first climb, but paid for the effort later, fading to finish 30th.
"I took advantage of my start position [on the front row]," explained Kabush "but I had to back off in the heat. It's obviously not as well as I had hoped to do, but at least it will mean that I still have a reasonable start position for the European races."
A big pileup shortly after the start took down a number of riders including Canada's Raphael Gagne (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher), whose race was over with a trashed rear wheel.
By the second lap an elite group had formed at the front: Hermida, Absalon, Stander, world champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Olympic silver medalist Jean-Christophe Peraud (Massi), Olympic bronze medalist Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower), Martin Gujan (Cannondale) and Florian Vogel (Scott-Swisspower).
Riders began dropping off under the relentless pace, which was exacerbated by Absalon's attack on the first climb of lap four. When the dust settled there were three left at the front - Absalon, Hermida and Stander, with Sauser and Schurter at 20 seconds, followed by Peraud, who was fading. Moving up steadily was Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon), who had won on the circuit a week earlier.
A lap later, and Hermida decided to test his lead companions, and quickly opened a 10 second gap on Absalon, with Stander struggling to stay in touch with the French rider. Hermida continued to put time into Absalon through the rest of the race, eventually finishing 32 seconds ahead.
"I could feel my legs were very good, after last week's race on this course," explained Hermida. "I think I made a very good plan with my training to prepare for this race, and came here more rested than some of the other riders. For me this is a fantastic result, it is only my fourth World Cup victory in 12 years! I will try now to keep the jersey through the next races."
Stander yo-yo'd behind Absalon, spurred on by the cheers of his compatriots. He pulled to within six seconds at one point, but would always fade back on the climbs. Nevertheless, he finished a strong third, and won the U23 category. Sauser hung on for fourth, just ahead of Kurschat.
Absalon, although he lost the leader's jersey, said "I am still really happy with this result, because my goal here was a top five result. Hermida was just faster today, and when he attacked mid race I could not stay with him. And then with Burry [Stander] always behind, he was always pushing ... It was very hard."
Stander agreed that the crowd was a huge spur for him. "It was incredible, it motivated me so much, with that awesome crowd driving me to catch back each time. It was a three-way battle, and Hermida was attacking so hard. I came back a few times, but then I cracked a bit on the fifth and just couldn't close the gap."
Following the cross country, spectators immediately moved over to the 4-Cross course to watch the riders prepare for their competition. 32 men and 8 women, over the course of an hour, were going to be whittled down to four riders in each Final.
The women's race was expected to come down to the defending World Cup champion - Anneke Beerten (Suspension Center) of the Netherlands - and American Jill Kintner, who had previously dominated women's 4-Cross, before leaving the sport for a year to prepare for and win the Olympic bronze medal in BMX. The two had qualified 1-2, with Kintner four tenths of a second faster.
However, the meeting never happened, after Kintner had a poor first round, and did not move on to the Final. Beerten, on the other hand, easily qualified, and was joined in the Final by Fionn Griffiths (Norco World Team), and two Czech riders - Romana Labounkova and Jana Horakova. In the gold medal ride, Beerten was again well out in front to retain the leader's jersey, followed by Griffiths and Labounkova.
"Over the last three days I have felt really good on this course, " commented Beerten. "I'm sort of bummed that I didn't get to meet Jill [Kintner - in the Final], but I'm really stoked that I'll be wearing the jersey in Houffalize [Belgium, the next round of the 4-Cross], which is almost like wearing it in front of a home crowd."
In the men's race, the two men who appeared to be the strongest were the world champion and defending World Cup champion Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Specialized Factory Team) of Spain, and Australian Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox Factory), the fastest qualifier. Both easily moved through the heats to reach the Final, along with former world champion Michal Prokop of the Czech Republic and Roger Rinderknecht of the Netherlands. Alvarez had problems in the first turn of the Final, dropping back to third behind Prokop, while Graves once again took over the front spot to claim the win and the leader's jersey for the first time in his career.
"I think my downhill background helped on this course, " explained Graves. "I like the high speed stuff, so this suited me well. The jersey will certainly drive me in my training for the next World Cup."
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