31 August 2013
After some overnight rain, a bright, cloudless day dawned in Pietermaritzburg for the men’s and women’s elite cross country competitions at the 2013 UCI MTB & Trials World Championships on Saturday.
Thankfully, the light downfalls had helped settle some of the dust that had been so prevalent in the under-23 races the previous day. Conditions were ideal for cross country racing and the pace turned out to be torrid.
Nino Schurter, ranked number one in the world in the men’s elite cross country, and the defending world champion, came into the event having won the past two World Cup stops in Pietermaritzburg in 2011 and 2012 and he rode with the confidence of a man who knew his strengths were perfectly suited to the course.
He pulled out a seven-second lead after the opening lap, but Jose Hermida, the winner of the UCI World Cup Pietermaritzburg in 2009, was keeping him in his sights and by the end of lap three had closed the gap to just five seconds. At that stage, he looked like the only man that could challenge the Swiss ace for the win.
Lost a little time
The Spanish star lost a little time to a back-marker on the fourth lap, however, and Schurter extended his lead to 17 seconds. Germany’s Manuel Fumic, despite a fall, then moved past Hermida and up into second.
There was no stopping Schurter, however, and he refused to allow the chasers to close him down, pumping hard up the ascents and speeding smoothly down the descents and the technical sections.
Fumic reduced the deficit to only seven seconds after Schurter took a light tumble on the final lap, but the Olympic silver medallist was never in danger of ceding the lead and won in 1:40:17 after seven very testing laps.
Hermida was a strong third place finisher, 21 seconds behind Schurter. Maxime Marrot took fourth, followed by Olympic champion, Jaroslav Kulhavy, a former team- mate of the late South African star Burry Stander.
‘It was a perfect race’
“It was a perfect race for me,” Schurter said afterwards. “My goal was to start really fast on the first lap. [Julian] Absalon was my biggest rival, but he always struggles a bit on the first lap, so I started really fast and after the first loop I already had a gap of five seconds. Then I was just riding at my pace and trying not to go too much into the red zone.
“It’s a track that suits me really well,” he added. “I went in with quite a lot of confidence for this race and I had such a good week before here in training, so I was in a good frame of mind and I had a good feeling on the track, so the pressure was no different to any World Cup or World Championship.”
Hermida, too, described it as a perfect race and complimented the course. “I tried to stay on his [Schurter’s] wheel, or at least stay close, but it was impossible because the first four laps he just killed me [with his pace]. After I saw that it was impossible to beat him for first place, I tried to keep my pace and to stay on the podium.”
All three podium finishers are regular visitors to South Africa and expressed their gratefulness for the support they received from the local fans.
“So many friends came from Durban, from Cape Town, and it felt like I was at home,” Fumic smiled. “I really was looking for that kind of race and I am more than happy that I finished in second place because I felt a little bit of pressure from my friends who came, who told me: ‘If we come, you must finish on the podium’.
In the women’s elite race, which preceded the Schurter show, the competition was a lot closer. Through three laps, six riders were packed tightly together, but then it developed into a battle for line honours between 2012 Olympic champion Julie Bresset and 2012 UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg winner Maja Wloszczowska, with the two women swopping out the lead throughout the race.
Heading into the sixth and final lap, Bresset looked a little fresher than the Polish star on the climbs, but Wloszczowska had previously shown herself to be faster in the technical sections at the back end of the testing Nick Floros-designed course. The question as to who would prevail was far from decided.
With the distance to the finish slipping away, there was next to nothing to separate the pair, with Wloszczowska stalking the Frenchwoman.
As they headed into the Tree House Rock Garden, Bresset held onto the lead under heavy pressure and opened up a little gap on her Polish pursuer. Still, there was no give in Wloszczowska’s challenge, but Bresset had the bit between her teeth and raced on to a five-second victory.
The French star crossed the finishing line in 1:42:54, with Wloszczowska second in 1:42:59. For the Wloszczowska, the world champion in 2010, it was a fourth runner-up finish in the World Championships.
‘She was unbelievably strong’
“I knew that the finish of the race would be at the top before the Tree House Rock Garden,” she said at the post-race press conference. “I tried to pass Julie there, but she was really unbelievably strong there. I tried to keep my speed to the finish, but definitely it was Julie’s day today.”
For both women, the race was an unexpected triumph, with both having overcome serious injuries in the lead-up to the biggest mountain biking event of 2013. Bresset had suffered a broken collarbone earlier in the year, while Wloszczowska had missed the Olympics and spent almost half-a-year sidelined, uncertain whether she would be able to recover from a foot injury and ride competitively again.
“I am very happy. My target was the top five,” Bresset admitted. “First place today was great.”
Behind two front-runners, Esther Suss and Irina Kalentieva were involved in their own duel for third place until Kalentieva took a tumble on the final lap, which effectively ended her challenge and allowed the Swiss veteran to pull clear and secure the bronze medal. The 39-year-old Suss finished one minute and six seconds behind Bresset and was clearly delighted with her bronze medal.
World number one Tania Zakelj was up with the front-runners before she fell on sharp descent while trying to keep pace when Wlsozczowska led with Bresset in third, while world number two Eva Lechner saw her title challenge ended by a nasty fall, which cost her almost two minutes. The most stunning aspect of it was the fact that she was able to continue.
In the end, Zakelj clawed her way back to an impressive fifth place finish, while Lechner gutsed it out to take tenth place.