For the world’s top men cross-country racers, 2011 started off where 2010 ended with Nino Schurter standing on the top of the podium and Julien Absalon a step below.
Racing on a sun-baked course in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the first round of the 2011 World Cup cross-country season was fast, furious and, at 104 degrees, literally frying. Adding to the speed was the new UCI rule that calls for shorter, more TV- and spectator-friendly courses. Saturday’s event was done in just more than 1hr 30mins, on a track that was baked hard and dry by recent warm and humid weather.
Round 1 was the fastest race since the UK’s Dalby Forest in 2010, with an average speed above 20kmh. The World Cup in Champery, Switzerland last year was 16kmh average, for example.
It was clear 10 minutes into the 114-strong men’s race that the pace would be fast. That selection saw Schurter (Scott-Swisspower), Absalon (Orbea) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized) gapping the rest of the field, followed by the crowd-favorite, home-grown Burry Stander (Specialized) and German Manuel Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing). Those two riders fell back after the second lap, being outrun by reigning world XC champ Jose Hermida (Multivan-Merida), who advanced to fourth. Meanwhile, Stander caught his front wheel at the rock garden and fell hard, loosing his chances to finish among the top ten.
The leading trio of Schurter, Absalon and Kulhavy stayed together until the fourth lap. Upon entering the fifth lap the rival duo of Schurter and Absalon separated from Kulhavy and continued increasing the gap on the rest of the field. The decisive move was made by the technically proficient Schurter at the rock garden, where Absalon, in the lead, lost focus. That allowed Schurter to build a seven-second gap.
Absalon tried to make time with an attack at the feed zone, but it didn’t help. Schurter crossed the line in 1:34:50, 16 seconds ahead of Absalon.
“Julien made a small mistake before then and so I decided to push hard in the rock section and fortunately I managed to open up about a ten-second gap. I then had work really hard on the last lap. I’m very happy to have won,” Schurter told Supersport.com.
The top-placed North American on the day was Todd Wells (Specialized), who rounded out a top-ten finish 2:36 behind the winner.
“Made it as high as 7 but faded per usual at the end,” Wells said in a Twitter post. “Super happy though.”
The elite women’s event was full of high- and low-level surprises pre- and post race. The first was that Willow Koerber didn’t take the line and the second being who actually won — China’s Chengyuan Ren.
Koerber, who was set to start her first race for her new Trek World Racing squad, announced that she is pregnant. Going into Round 1 of the World Cup, Koerber, the world’s second-ranked XC rider, was fully focused on the international circuit for 2011 and the Olympics in 2012.
“I had two positive tests for pregnancy the day before the World Cup in South Africa,” Koerber wrote in her blog. “I am six weeks along. With my team’s support, I chose not to start the World Cup.”
Meanwhile, for Ren the victory was a comeback of sorts, as the Chinese rider was fifth at the Beijing Olympics and won the Offenburg, Germany, World Cup race in 2009. On Saturday Ren (Specialized) started deep in the 56-rider field but was strong in the technical sections allowing her to take the lead from Julie Bresset of France. After the second lap, Ren soloed to victory in 1:32:36, with more than a minute lead over Bresset.
As for the favorites going into Round 1, 2010 overall World Cup XC winner Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak-Ergon) of Russia duked it out for the third step on the podium. Kalentieva ultimately held onto a slim 15-second gap on Canada’s Pendrel and finished third.
The most unfortunate rider was Pendrel’s teammate Katerina Nash who flatted on a drop after the second feed zone. She was riding among the top 10 throughout the third lap, but after the mechanical she fell back and finished in 41st.
1 Nino SCHURTER SUI 25 1:34:50
2 Julien ABSALON FRA 31 1:35:06
3 Jaroslav KULHAVY CZE 26 1:35:57
4 José Antonio HERMIDA RAMOS ESP 33 1:36:05
5 Marco Aurelio FONTANA ITA 27 1:36:36
10 Todd WELLS USA 36 1:37:26
19 Geoff KABUSH CAN 34 1:39:12
34 Derek ZANDSTRA CAN 27 1:42:18
37 Jeremy HORGAN-KOBELSKI USA 33 1:42:42
50 Adam CRAIG USA 30 1:44:16
54 Samuel SCHULTZ USA 26 1:45:03
68 Andrew WATSON CAN 28 1:47:23
70 Adam MORKA CAN 25 1:48:00
83 Michael BRODERICK USA 38
85 Troy WELLS USA 27
1 Chengyuan REN CHN 25 1:32:36
2 Julie BRESSET FRA 22 1:33:42
3 Irina KALENTIEVA RUS 34 1:34:54
4 Catharine PENDREL CAN 31 1:35:20
5 Lene BYBERG NOR 29 1:35:52
9 Marie-Helene PREMONT CAN 34 1:38:09
16 Emily BATTY CAN 23 1:39:49
18 Georgia GOULD USA 31 1:40:07
23 Mary MCCONNELOUG USA 40 1:42:52
24 Heather IRMIGER USA 32 1:43:00
26 Katherine COMPTON USA 33 1:43:13
35 Amanda SIN CAN 34 1:45:56
39 Krista PARK USA 37 1:49:07
41 Katerina NASH CZE 34 1:49:47