By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
It’s one of the most overused adjectives when it comes to mountain-bike racing, but in this case “epic” really did apply. With heavy rain moving in and out all day, and a legitimately tough course serving as the stage, the fourth stop of the UCI World Cup concluded with a pair of cross-country races that produced enough drama to fill a week of daytime television.
When it was all done, the day’s heroes were Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle and Belgian Roel Paulissen, each taking World Cup victories after spending full days at the front. For Paulissen, the win was a long time coming, erasing his name from the list of best riders to have never won a World Cup. For Dahle, it was dominance continued, as the Merida rider won her fourth straight World Cup race and locked up the overall series title. In the chase for the men’s overall Frenchman Julien Absalon moved ahead of Christoph Sauser after finishing third at Grouse Mountain on Sunday.
Survival of the fittest
When the gun sounded for the start of the men’s race, it appeared as though a big, wet bullet had been dodged. In the hour between the men’s and women’s races, the skies over western Canada had opened up, soaking the already difficult Grouse Mountain course. But then the rain abated, and it looked like things might actually clear up. It was good news for the 112-rider field, being that on such a short course (5km per lap), anyone who fell too far off the back would quickly be in jeopardy of being lapped and pulled.
At the front the gas was on from the get-go, with Paulissen setting a torrid pace up the opening climb following the short parade loop. Behind the Siemens-Cannondale rider was the usual cast of characters, including then-series leader Christoph Sauser (Siemens-Cannondale), reigning world champ Roland Green (Trek-Volkswagen), 2002 World Cup winner Filip Meirhaeghe (Specialized), local favorite Ryder Hesjedal (Subaru-Gary Fisher), and Motorex-Bianchi teammates Absalon and Jose Antonio Hermida.
The test ahead was eight laps on a track that gave riders almost no time to rest. Either they were grinding their way up one of the two steep main climbs (no big-ringing it here), or they were nimbly working their way through tricky single track that had been greased up by the rain. Among the early causalities of the trying conditions was Hesjedal, who crashed twice, forcing him into chase mode.
At the close of the first lap, Paulissen had built his early break into a 15-second cushion over teammate Sauser, with most of the other contenders coming through 17 seconds later in a group that numbered near 10.
In the ensuing three laps things slowly began to shake out. Frenchman Cedric Ravanel (Orbea) broke free from the chase group and hooked up with Sauser in second, while Meirhaeghe moved into fourth by himself. Behind, Hesjedal had regained his composure and was a solid fifth by the end of the second lap. Also going well was American Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (RLX-Ralph Lauren), who sat 10th. Among the troubled was Green, who had a problem with his cleat that dropped him to 13th, 2:13 behind Paulissen.
But Green’s short shoe fix was nothing compared to what was to come. At exactly an hour into the race, with the leaders mid-way through the fourth of eight laps, the skies opened up again and chaos ensued.
“It was so slippery,” said Bianchi’s Hermida. “I think many riders were losing their brakes.”
Whatever the troubles, the results were expected, as officials commenced pulling racers a handful at a time. When the festivities finally ended only 23 riders were left on the course and only 12 were within 10 minutes of the leader.
“It was one of the hardest races I’ve ever done,” said Horgan-Kobelski, who was among the survivors, earning a career best World Cup result by finishing ninth.
Back at the front Ravanel had disappeared, likely the victim of a puncture, while Sauser had caught Paulissen and Hesjedal had moved up to third. Also clawing back was Green, who sat eighth at the race’s halfway point.
A lap later, Hesjedal was the story. After flailing early, the resident of nearby Victoria had the partisan crowd in a tizzy, as he closed in on the leaders, bringing the gap down to just 23 seconds. Next through was the dangerous threesome of Hermida, Absalon and Meirhaeghe, 48 second off the front at the end of five laps.
“Today only the strong riders could stay at the front,” Hermida said.
Indeed, Hermida would prove to be among the strongest. By the time the bell sounded for the final lap, he and Absalon had shaken loose from Meirhaeghe and caught and passed Hesjedal and a fading Sauser. The only rider left for the Bianchi boys was Paulissen, but that was a task that proved to tough to complete. Two hours and 32 minutes after the race began, the Belgian coasted across the finish line covered head to toe in mud, arms stretched high in the air.
“It was a hard race mentally to be at the front for so long,” he said. “But I knew this was my chance to finally win, so I had to fight.”
Next through came Hermida at 0:35, followed by new series leader Absalon at 1:11. Hesjedal and Meirhaeghe completed the top five, with Sauser dropping to sixth and Green settling for eighth.
“The Bianchi guys were conserving some and I had to work so hard to early,” said Hesjedal. “But after the way this thing started, I’m pretty happy to be on the podium.”
Other notable efforts included three other Americans, Todd Wells (Mongoose-Hyundai) 11th at 8:41, Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-Volkswagen Regional) 12th at 9:24, and Adam Craig (Giant-Pearl Izumi) 13th at 10:10. Canadian Geoff Kabush and Chris Sheppard were 10th and 16th, giving the North Americans half of the riders in the top 16.
Dahle does it again
Standing on the side of the course waiting for his fiancé to roll past, Kenneth Flesja, Gunn-Rita Dahle’s husband-to-be and coach, said that lately they’ve been working on improving the speed of her starts. Certainly there’s no need to work on her finishes. After hitting the base of the first sustained climb of the first full lap in fifth place, the Merida rider steadily worked her way to the front, taking the lead by the top of the climb. From there she never looked back, grabbing yet another World Cup victory.
This time the margin was a comfortable 4:02, with Canadian Alison Sydor earning a hard fought second place on a track that’s barley 20 minutes from the front door of her home. Right behind Trek-Volkswagen’s Sydor was her American teammate Sue Haywood, who started the second lap in ninth place before climbing all the way into second at one point.
“I was hurting so bad on the last lap,” said Haywood about when Sydor finally caught and passed her.
Canadian Marie-Helene Premont (Oryx) ended up fifth, with Germany’s Ivonne Kraft in fifth.
Premont was among the hard luckers, after leaks in both her front and rear tubeless tires forced her off her bike twice, dropping her out of what had been a solid hold on second place.
Other notable results included an eighth-place effort from American Willow Koerber, the best of her career.
On the flip side was the day of Spaniard Marga Fullana who was making a rare appearance at a North American World Cup. The Orbea rider looked strong early in the race, sitting second behind Dahle. But mechanical problems ruined her day and the former world champion didn’t make it to the finish.
And Fullana was far from alone on that count. Of the 75 starters, just 28 completed the race on the lead lap and only eight were within 10 minutes of Dahle.
“I still can’t really believe how well this year is going,” Dahle said. “I didn’t expect this today but I’ve said that the last three times, too.”
With Grouse Mountain now in the books, the World Cup gives way to a slew of national championship events, then the world championships at the beginning of September. The series finals follow, scheduled for September 13-14 at Kaprun, Austria. Of the six overall titles three are already decided (Dahle in women’s cross country, and Eric Carter and Katrina Miller in four-cross). The men’s cross country is essentially a race of two, with Absalon leading Sauser by 65 points. Hermida is a distant third, 200 behind Absalon.
UCI WORLD CUP NO. 4; GROUSE MOUNTAIN, BRITISH COLUMBIA; JULY 11-13; CROSS COUNTRY; MEN: 1. Roel Paulissen (B), Siemens-Cannondale, 40.24km in 2:32:25; 2. Jose Antonio Hermida (Sp), Motorex-Bianchi, at 0:35; 3. Julien Absalon (F), Motorex-Bianchi, at 1:11; 4. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 3:23; 5. Filip Meirhaeghe (B), Specialized, at 3:42; 6. Christoph Sauser (Swi), Siemens-Cannondale, at 3:57; 7. Bart Brentjens (Nl), T-Mobile, at 6:04; 8. Roland Green (Can), Trek-Volkswagen, at 6:35; 9. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (USA), RLX-Ralph Lauren, at 6:44; 10. Geoff Kabush (Can), Kona-Clarks, at 7:54
WOMEN: 1. Gunn-Rita Dahle (N), Merida, 30.8km in 2:09:30; 2. Alison Sydor (Can), Trek-Volkswagen, at 4:02; 3. Sue Haywood (USA), Trek-Volkswagen, at 4:09; 4. Marie-Helen Premont (Can), Oryx, at 4:20; 5. Ivonne Kraft (G), Ghost International, at 5:16; 6. Irina Kalentieva (Rus), Merida, at 6:22; 7. Anna Szafraniec (P), Lotto-PZU, at 6:43; 8. Willow Koerber (USA), RLX-Ralph Lauren, at 7:53; 9. Barbara Blatter (Swi), Specialized, at 10:03; 10. Sabine Spitz (G), Merida, at 10:31
OVERALL STANDINGS; (through 4 of 5 events); MEN; 1. Absalon, 760 points; 2. Sauser, 695; 3. Hermida, 560; 4. Paulissen, 510; 5. L. Fumic, 480; 6. Meirhaeghe, 443; 7. Green, 379; 8. Galinski, 352; 9. Brentjens, 285; 10. Killeen, 241
WOMEN; 1. Dahle, 1000 points; 2. Spitz, 675; 3. Kalentieva, 565; 4. Blatter, 510; 5. Premont, 414; 6. Sydor, 395; 7. Szafraniec, 371; 8. Wlosczowska, 352; 9. Kraft, 338; 10. Haywood, 324