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September 3/02 8:54 am - Worlds XC-The Story


Posted by Editor on 09/3/02
 

Rain.

After beautiful weather all week at the 2002 Mountain Bike World Championships in Kaprun, Austria, the weather abruptly changed overnight before the elite and espoir cross-country races. Did it affect the outcomes? For the winners, probably not, but other riders, including some who ended up on the podium, certainly benefited from the change. As Thomas Frischknecht (Switzerland) said, "before I opened my eyes this morning, I could hear the rain, and it made me nervous. Because now I became a contender."

By now, you should be aware of who the victors were: Gunn-Rita Dahle of Norway for the women, Julien Absalon of France for the Espoir men, and Canada's own Roland Green for the showcase Elite Men's category. All three were the dominant riders in their races, and earned their victories by being stronger, faster and better bike handlers then the competition.

Despite the weather, the spectators came out in droves, with cowbells, airhorns, megaphones and whistles. They cheered on every rider, no matter what nationality, and were probably responsible for more then a few riders not quitting.

Here are the race stories.

Elite Women - 4 laps

The rain began in the night, and by the start of the women's race it was pouring, so much so that crews were out all race digging channels into the course to carry away the water, which turned some portions of the circuit muddy bogs, and made the downhills slick and treacherous. The most technical downhill section was cut out, because it went from almost unridable to completely unwalkable, and totally dangerous.

The changed conditions suited riders such as Dahle, Sabine Spitz of Germany, and Canada's Alison Sydor, all excellent bike handlers who can deal with adverse conditions. It took away the climbing advantage of pre-race favourites Marga Fullana (Spain) and Caroline Alexander (Great Britain).

Fullana went to the front on the first lap, and did manage to stay with the leaders for the first couple of laps but it was Sydor who forced the pace on the downhill. She was closely followed by unheralded Anna Szafranienc of Poland, the 1999 Junior World Champion, who has not been a factor at the upper echelons of the elite women's category until now.

Dahle held back a bit early on, waiting while the race sorted itself out, and finding her form. But by the start of the third lap, she and Szafranienc had taken control of the race. Dahle dropped the Polish rider late in the third lap to take the lead and solo in for victory. The victory was especially sweet, since she had flatted the year before in Vail while leading, limping home finally in 11th place.

"It is unbelievable to get what I almost got last year. I just tried to keep my focus on this race, and not think about last year. I said before the start that I need a perfect day, and a little bit of luck, and that is what I got.

At the beginning, my legs felt slower then the others, so I just paced myself and rode until I felt better. I had some problems on the first lap, flying off the bike, so I tried to be careful and not take any chances. I didn't attack, I just got a small gap (on Szafranienc), then I knew that I could use my experience to keep gaining a little bit each time that she made a mistake. Experience helps a lot on a day like this."

Second place Szafranienc was the revelation of the race. She was the one following the fast descending Sydor in the early stages, with Dahle and Spitz chasing. She was the one that Dahle almost couldn't shake. The 22 year old couldn't believe the result herself. "From the beginning it was good race for me, but in my best dreams I had never thought of this result."

Sydor held onto third until the last half lap, when, bonking badly, she relinquished the final podium spot to Spitz, who came charging up after dealing with earlier brake problems. Sydor was, of course, disappointed, but did take solace in the fact that her incredible Worlds record is still intact - the 3-time World Champion (4, if you count the Team Relay title that she won a few days ago), has finished in the top 5 of every world championships since 1991, when she first started competing offroad. This is a record that will probably never be equaled.

"The conditions gave me a chance, and all I could do was try my best. It was hard out there, and I lost my brakes for the final two laps, which makes it pretty hard to descend. I was hoping to hold on for the bronze, but the last lap I had nothing left. The mud was so hard that it took all your energy to keep going. You always want to go for the win, so it is disappointing, but I am still happy that I was able to keep my record going."

Spitz thought that she was out of contention for a medal until the last lap. "I was nearly 20 seconds behind Alison in the feed zone. I saw her pedaling wasn't that good, and I thought then that if I could catch her on the climb, then I could maybe make a gap before the descending. The rain is usually good for me, but this was too much. After the second lap it was more like mud wrestling then cycling."

Two other Canadians also made the top 10: Chrissy Redden in 7th and Kiara Bisaro 8th. Redden was sitting in fifth with less then a half a lap to go, after working her way up steadily, and passing Swiss rider Maroussia Rusca, who had stopped to fix a drivetrain problem. However, she came across the line two spots back (behind another Swiss, Petra Henzi, and Rusca), and the reason was obvious when she had to be helped off her bike and limped away, almost dragging her right leg. "A crash" was all she said, in obvious pain. Always smiling Kiara Bisaro, in her second world championships, improved on last year's 10th place. Marie-Helene Premont, not a strong rider in the mud at the best of times, finished a very credible 16th, with Trish Sinclair ("this is like a BC Cup!") 31st, Eron Chorney 34th and Sandra Walter (on a borrowed bike) 53rd.

Defending world champion Alison Dunlap (USA), suffering a broken arm and stitches in her leg, was one of a number of notable DNFs. Dunlap was as high as 6th after the first lap, but her injuries caught up with her. Fullana and Annabella Stropparo (Italy) also didn't finish, and Barbara Blatter (Switzerland) and Jimena Florit (Argentina) didn't start - the latter because of food poisoning she contracted less then 48 hours before the start of the race.

Espoir Men - 4 laps

Julien Absalon, the defending champion from France, hung onto his jersey in his last year in the Under 23 category, with Canada's Ryder Hesjedal taking bronze, a victim of a early race crash and, on the day, a stronger rider.

Hesjedal led out the start with a Swiss rider, with Absalon back in 6th. "Then, I saw Ryder and the Swiss guy fall, so I was able to get into the front without difficulty. I also decided to stay with my big chainring for the climbs, and otherwise run if I couldn't ride, since I felt that it was faster that way.

I liked the conditions here, because they were like at home! I was a little concerned about my tire pressure - it was too high for the conditions, but I could not stop. When I saw that it was Ralph (Naef) with me at the front I was concerned, because I knew he is a good runner and would be dangerous. So, I made sure that I could drop him on the climb to get a gap."

Naef agreed that the conditions favoured him. "Yes, these were my conditions, but I did not expect to do this ride; I was hoping for 5th. We do a lot of mud races in Switzerland, so I was quite comfortable here." Naef had everyone scrambling to find out past results, and he turns out to have been a bit of a sleeper: from 6th in the Junior category at the Mont Ste Anne Worlds in 1998, he is now finishing as high as 3rd in the elite category of the Swiss championships at this year's race.

Ryder Hesjedal leaves the espoir category this year (along with Absalon and Naef) with his biggest goal unfulfilled: a world cross-country title. "Of course I'm disappointed, you're always disappointed when you hope to win. I felt good today, but they were just faster. I can't complain too much, though, when I get two medals for the second year in a row.

At the start the Swiss guys went to the front and opened it up. I came over the top in second, through the river crossing then across a field, which is where we went down. It was an open, off-camber grassy field, which you could hardly run, let alone walk.

After that I stayed steady and chased. I felt good, and thought I could close the gap, but you can only accelerate for so long. I was always trying to think if there was a faster way, but the course was changing every lap. There were just two faster guys today."

All three of the top finishers move to the senior ranks for 2003, opening the chances up for fourth and fifth place finishers Florian Vogel (Switzerland) and Manuel Fumic (Germany).

Elite Men - 4.5 laps

This race was wide open. Roland Green is always a favourite, but this year has not been as dominant on the World Cup stage as last, plus the weather brought in a few more contenders. In addition to Green, Filip Meirhaeghe (Belgium), Frischknecht, Christoph Sauser (Switzerland), Roel Paulissen (Belgium) and Christophe Dupouey (France) are all good in the mud. Plus, Miguel Martinez (France) appeared on the starting line, and was a dark horse, based on his fifth place the previous weekend in Kaprun at the marathon championship.

The race was shortened from 5 laps to four and a half, which turned out to be a good move when the rain, which had slackened off towards the end of the espoir race, started coming down again harder then ever.

Once the race began, the field was quickly whittled down to 4 contenders: Green, Meirhaeghe, Frischknecht and another Canadian, Seamus McGrath. All other riders quickly dropped back. Green was the obvious strongest on the climbs, going immediately to the front with the others struggling to stay on his wheel. McGrath was the first to come off after two times up the climb, then Frischknecht a lap later. Meirhaeghe gritted his teeth and hung on until the final lap, when he too finally backed off.

"Roland during the whole race was a little stronger on the climb." said Meirhaeghe afterwards. "Already on the second lap I was losing time on the uphill and would have to make it back on the downhill (the Belgian started out as a downhiller, as a junior). On the last lap I got back on just before the climb, but then I had to let him go and ride my own pace. I was too much behind on the top of the last downhill to make it up."

Green rode a race of strength and strategy. "The race started very fast, with Thomas (Frischknecht) setting a very fast pace. At the Worlds you take risks, you go harder then normal. Thomas, Filip and I were prepared to go until our legs gave out - it was 3 guys battling it out as hard as they could and not giving up.

There were a couple of downhills at the end of the lap, and I rode them the first few times until I noticed Thomas was coming back up quickly each time. I know he is a really good 'cross racer, so I watched where he was getting on and off and switched to running in the same sections.

Frischknecht, the veteran, has been to every world championships, starting with Durango in 1990. He has raced every one except Vail in 1994 when he broke his collarbone in training, and won in 1996 (after Jerome Chiotti admitted to using drugs and returned the jersey). His perspective on the conditions and the race are interesting:

"These conditions were the toughest I have ever raced, but it was not a race against competitors, but to get to the finish. The racing was not as hard as Vail (last year), when there were 6 guys all racing against each other and not the course. But Rollie is a true champion, to win last year in Vail, and again this year in totally different conditions."

The race was between those three, with Meirhaeghe 19 seconds behind Green and Frischknecht a minute and 45 seconds down. The next rider to finish was over 6 minutes back. Unfortunately, it was not McGrath, who faded and was caught on the third climb by first Manuel Fumic (Germany) and Thomas Kalberer (Switzerland). McGrath was in a group of four contending for 6th, and was right behind Roel Paulissen in 7th with 300 metres to go until disaster struck.

"There was the bridge we had to go over (a constructed steep wooden affair over a road), and Roel slowed down going over the top. I lost traction and slid all the way to the bottom."

The mishap allowed Hubert Pallhuber (Italy) to get by, and dropped McGrath to 8th, still his best result at a world championships. McGrath also scrapped his knee up pretty badly on the rough tar paper laid down on the bridge as he slid back down.


Overall, Canada was still one of the best performing nations in the cross-country, with 3 in the top-8 for the women, a bronze for the espoir men, a gold and an 8th place for the elite men.


Race Notes

- Next year the Worlds take place in Lugano, Switzerland on September 1-7. Thomas Frischknecht is the course designer for the cross-country. The course will be shorter and not as much of a climber's circuit. He says it will be "challenging, but more of an all-rounder's course."

- Roland Green will do the World Cup Final next weekend in Les Gets, France, and then start to prepare for the Road Worlds time trial. "I hope to be selected, and should know shortly. I know that I can do a lot better then 14th (last year). This year I have a lot more time to prepare, and a new custom time trial bike. I am confident that I can get into the top-10."

Roland was also asked repeatedly if he will be following Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez from mountain to road. "Not now. Through the next Olympics my focus is on mountain biking and the individual time trial. After that, I will certainly be looking at it, but the road is a huge commitment that you have to specialize in."

- Seeing Hubert Pallhuber in the race, especially in the frontrunners, was a surprise - he was the manager of the Italian squad, and the oldest rider in the race!

- Heavy contract negotiations are getting underway for many riders. The number of teams is dropping, but Olympics are coming up for the cross-country riders. Among those up for re-negotiations are Roland Green and Gunn-Rita Dahle. For both, the rainbow jersey will make a huge difference. "It takes alot of pressure off." admitted Green after the race.

 


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