Posted by Editoress on 04/24/05
MTB World Cup #1 Spa Francochamps, Belgium
Reports brought to with the support of Human Kinetics Publishers and Gestev
At the same time that Liege-Bastogne-Liege was taking place, literally, down the road, the Mountain Bike World Cup season opened at the Formula One circuit in Spa Francochamps, Belgium. The rain which had been threatening last night was replaced by bright sunshine, and Marie-Hélène Prémont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) and Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agos) became the first in the 2005 season to don the blue leader's jerseys for the World Cup.
The organizers made some modifications overnight to the 6.1 kilometre course, removing one muddy stretch, and sending the riders out on a shortened circuit for their first lap to spread things out before the technical portions of the circuit began. The women did a start loop and three full laps, while the men tacked on two extra full laps.
Prémont, the silver medalist at the Athens Olympics behind Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida), made her move in the first long lap, charging by Dahle, her team mate Irina Kalentieva and Maja Wsoszczowska (Lotto) on the first steep climb. Only Dahle could stay with Prémont, and she struggled.
"I thought that I would start the year slower than I did" commented Prémont. "I felt good, but you never know how your form is at the beginning of the season. I knew this would be a good course for me - the climbs were tough. On the hills I could tell that I was getting ten or twelve seconds on Gunn-Rita (Dahle), so I knew that was where I had to build a gap."
By the second lap Prémont was 20 seconds ahead of Dahle, and gaining ground on every climb, eventually winning by 43 seconds. Dahle's incredible World Cup winning streak - through the entire 2003 and 2004 seasons - was finally broken.
"My goal was a top-3 result, but you are never satisfied if you don't win." said Dahle. "She (Prémont) was much stronger than me on the steep hills. Maybe doing a road World Cup four days before took a little bit out of me; this is a new experience for me. You have try different things, but I knew Marie-Helene would be my biggest challenge."
Kalentieva rode steadily in third place, finishing three minutes back, followed by Sabine Spitz, in her new Specialized colours, at 4:05. Kiara Bisaro (GearsRacing.com), struggling with a cold, finished 24th, while Trish Sinclair (Scott) was 34th and Sandra Walter 52nd.
The sheer size of the men's field - 178 starters - meant that a good start was a necessity. Two top contenders had some early bad luck - defending World Cup champion Christoph Sauser (Siemens Cannondale) crashed in the mud, flipping over his bars and losing at least 25 spots, while Liam Killeen (Specialized) flatted shortly after the start loop was completed. Sauser had one of the most impressive rides of the day, motoring back up to fourth, but Killeen remained mired in the high teens for the remainder of the race, eventually finishing 16th.
At the front, it was a battle between Olympic and world champion Absalon and local Belgian favourite Roel Paulissen (Giant). Paulissen managed to gain a slight advantage on the second lap, but Absalon realized that he was descendingt much faster than the others, and used this advantage to open a gap on the third lap. His lead quickly grew in the fifth lap as Paulissen faded, and the Belgian champion was nearly caught at the end by Jean-Christophe Peraud (Lapierre International). Sauser roared through the remnants of the field on the final lap, passing compatriot Thomas Frischknecht (Swisspower) to take fourth, 13 seconds in front of Frischknecht.
"I'm really happy that I was able to do well here" said Absalon. "I had many things to do all winter, many obligations after the Olympics, so I was not sure how I would go. For me this was a perfect track; I love roots and slippery trail.
"On the third lap it was Roel, Lado (Fumic - Fumic Bros. Racing) and me together. I could tell that I was descending faster than they were, so I went to the front at the top of the biggest downhill and got a gap of 10 or 15 seconds. After the climb Roel came back, and I did the same thing on the second downhill, and again on the next one, and then I stayed away."
The only Canadian rider, Max Plaxton (Maxxis MSC) did not have a strong ride, sliding back through the field in the first few laps and eventually dropping out.
- Prémont is the first North American woman to win a World Cup in Europe since Alison Dunlap (Luna) in 1997, and the first North American woman to win a World Cup since Chrissy Redden in 2001. Prémont fit the race around year-end exams for her Pharmacy degree, with an exam the day before she left for Belgium, and two more this week when she gets home.
"This is my first win in a World Cup, and I had a good feeling on the podium; it was good to hear the Canadian national anthem. We have not heard it for a few years. I hope every Canadian will be proud of me."
- Sauser was racing only his first cross-country of the year. previous racing was at the Cape Epic in South Africa. "It is totally different there - very long and steady, no warm up required. I was very strong but I need to work on more speed."
- Nicole Cooke (Great Britain), the former junior world champion started well, but faded in the final lap, dropping from top-8 to 13th.
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