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Fullana, Absalon Win UCI World Cup, Houffalize

Frenchman Julien Absalon continued his domination of the 2009 UCI World Cup series, handily taking a win on a dry course in Houffalize, Belgium. The victory was Absalon’s second of the 2009 series, and his second-consecutive win at Houffalize.

“Houffalize is the biggest World Cup of the season,” Absalon said. “The spirit is very nice. It is always competitive.”

Absalon finished 15 seconds up on German Wolfram Kurschat of the Topeak-Ergon team, however the Frenchman’s win came after a day spent battling Multivan-Merida teammates Ralph Naf and Jose Hermida, and his former Orbea teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud (Massi).

The starting line saw 203 professional men cue up in downtown Houffalize, a small tourist village in the heart of Belgium’s Ardennes region. The opening obstacle of the race was a painfully steep kilometer-long stretch of pavement, featured in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege road race as the Cote de la Roche.

Last week’s winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Andy Schleck, was on hand to watch the race alongside his Saxo Bank teammate Jakob Fuglsang, the 2007 U23 mountain bike world champ.

First to the summit of the climb was young French rider Alexis Vuillermoz of the Lapierre squad. Vuillermoz was also the first man to emerge from the ensuing descent, before quickly fading to 14th.

It was Peraud, the Olympic silver medalist from Beijing, and Naf who followed Vuillermoz’ early lead on the tacky Houffalize course, which was dried out by two days of sunshine. The two built a five-second lead on Absalon, who chased alongside Belgian Roel Paulissen (Cannondale), Hermida and Manuel Fumic (Fumic Brothers International). Hermida dueled with the Orbea rider before suffering a flat tire that knocked him back to sixth.

But Absalon slowly ate away at the advantage until he made contact with Naf on the penultimate lap. The Frenchman, who in 2008 out-dueled Nino Schurter for the victory, then attacked the fading Naf on the final lap for the win. Naf faded to third, and a resurgent Burry Stander (Specialized) rode his way up from a bad start into fourth.

“As always some of the front guys start fading a bit and I took advantage of that,” said Stander, who was the first U23 rider to cross the line. “It was pretty easy to move up. This course is long, sustained climbs. It’s easy to move up when the guys are fading.”

The day was not kind to North American riders. Todd Wells (Specialized) did not start due to an illness. Geoff Kabush (Rocky Mountain-Maxxis) destroyed his front wheel in an early pileup and finished 45th. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) crashed into barbed wire on the opening half-lap and had to leave the race with a deep laceration to his knee. A week after his impressive top-20 in Offenburg, Sam Schultz (Subaru-Gary Fisher) was missing his top gear. And top finisher Adam Craig, who was 29th, suffered from a bad start.

So Close for Pendrel

Canadian Catherine Pendrel nearly brought home the victory for the Luna women’s team. Pendrel finished 14 seconds down on reigning world champ Margarita Fullana after dueling with the Spaniard for the final lap.

“I was making up time on the descents but it just wasn’t enough to catch [Fullana] on the climbs,” said Pendrel, who finished second in the 2008 World Cup series. “She gapped me on the singletrack climb through the woods and that was it.”

The women’s race featured a shorter format than in years past. This year the ladies spun a short lap and then three full laps around the 7km course, while in years past they tackled four. Fullana’s finishing time was one hour and 25 minutes, noticeably short for a World Cup-level cross-country race. The shorter race played to the advantage of the Spanish rider, who is known as the fastest starter on the circuit.

“The beginning was faster today,” said Irina Kalentieva (Ergon-Topeak). “Faster than it usually is.”

Fullana sprung to an early lead, but Pendrel chased after the surging Spaniard alongside reigning Houffalize champ Chengyuan Ren of China, who won the previous weekend’s World Cup in Offenburg, Germany. Ren was unable to join Fullana, but Pendrel made contact with the Spaniard on the penultimate lap.

“I expected the pace to actually be harder. Last year we did the opening climb harder but a lot of people blew up,” Pendrel said. “I think people were racing today like it would have been a longer race.”

Pendrel said she paced herself correctly for the shorter race, and had the field been forced to race an additional lap, the outcome probably would have been the same.

“The last time up that switchback it was exciting, but my legs felt like I had knives stabbing into them,” Pendrel said.

With the victory, Fullana takes over the World Cup overall lead from Austrian rider Elizabeth Osl (Central Ghost).

“I am very happy with my race today, I was very tired on the final climb,” said Fullana with the aid of a translator.

Georgia Gould (Luna) was the top American finisher in 11th place with Lea Davison (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), Willow Koerber and Heather Irmiger (both Subaru-Gary Fisher) finishing 21st through 23rd. American Mary McConneloug (Seven-Kenda-NoTubes) crossed the line in 28th place.

Race Notes
? The loudest cheers of the day were for Belgian Filip Meirhaeghe (Landboukrediet-Colnago) who was competing in his final World Cup mountain bike race. The 2003 world champion, who was busted in 2004 for EPO use, egged on the crowd by riding wheelies up the course’s steepest climb en route to finishing 84th. A sizable retirement party was thrown for Meirhaeghe following the race.

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