By Fred Dreier
Under course-drying Italian sunshine, Slovenia’s pint-sized wunderkind Tanja Zakelj swiped the U23 women’s cross-country crown from China, which had dominated the espoir field since 2006. The win earned Zakelj her third worlds medal in four years — she finished third as a junior in 2005 and won the junior title in 2006.
Zakelj crossed the line with a whopping 2:58 advantage on Swiss rider Nathalie Schneitter, who fought a heated battle with the Slovenian for the first two of four laps around the muddy Val di Sole course. At the finishing press conference, Zakelj admitted she lacked confidence coming into the race.
“Yesterday I was very unsure of this course,” said Zakelj, who raced for her country in Monday’s team relay event. “I fell four times. I was very nervous before today.”
Schneitter, who defeated Zakelj to win the 2008 European U23 title in St. Wendel, Germany on May 16, looked to have the Slovenian on the ropes in Val di Sole after the opening lap. But the Swiss rider, known for her fast starts, lost contact on lap two and gradually faded. Schneitter then punctured midway through the final lap and then rode the flat 3km to the finish line, barely holding off Polish rider Aleksandra Dawidowicz by 16 seconds.
“I lost it on the second lap — I lost my concentration,” Schneitter said. “I stopped and saw a hole 2cm in my tire [on the last lap]. It was tubeless and couldn’t hold air so I just tried to hold my position.”
Noticeably absent from the front of the women’s field was 2006 U23 world champion Chengyuan Ren of China. Ren came into the race a heavy favorite, having demolished the women’s field in 2006 and finished second to her teammate Ying Liu in 2007. The Chinese rider also claimed the first World Cup of 2008 in Houffalize, Belgium against the world’s best elite riders.
Nothing seemed to go right for Ren in Val di Sole — she struggled on the opening climb, stopping frequently to check her front derailleur. The Chinese rider then looked fatigued and unmotivated as she rolled through successive laps. After rolling across the finish line in 13th, 9:31 behind Zakelj, the dejected Chinese rider pointed at her bicycle and her legs.
“Bike was broken,” Ren said in broken English, pointing at her bike’s front drivetrain. “Legs were broken too.”
Also missing from the pack was Czech rider Tereza Hurikova, the 2005 junior world champion and multiple-time Czech national champion on the road and mountain bike. Hurkiova crashed repeatedly on the slick, muddy descents, eventually rolling across the line in 20th, 17:16 down.
Schneitter admitted Ren came into the race as a heavy favorite, but said she was not surprised to see the Chinese rider falter.
“With the Chinese girls you never know, they are either very fast or they do nothing,” the Swiss rider said. “I didn’t expect to see [Ren] as fast as in years past.”
With her second place finish, the Swiss rider likely secured herself a coveted spot on Switzerland’s Olympic team. Schneitter need to finish at least second to keep herself in the running, which added extra motivation to her efforts to ride the flat tire to the finish.
Zakelj, on the other hand, knows she will not represent her country in Beijing. Blaza Klemencic’s seventh-place finish at the Houffalize World Cup grabbed Slovenia’s only women’s spot for the games. Zakelj will instead return to her sophomore year of college at the University of Ljubljana, where she is a straight-A Chemistry student.
Colombia nets first MTB championship
Like Zakelj, Colombia’s junior rider Laura Abril waited until the right moment to pounce on her prey, which was Barbara Benko of Hungary. Abril rode on the heels of the surging Benko for the first two of the three-lap junior women’s race before catching and then riding away from the Hungarian on the final climb. Her 37-second victory marked Colombia’s first-ever world championship in mountain bike racing.
“This win is for myself and Colombia, as well as my trainer and my team,” said a stern-faced Abril after the race. “It is for the many talented riders in South America.”
Abril, 18, hails from Cali, in Colombia’s interior; she began cycling at age seven. She says doctors recommended the sport as an alternative to expensive surgery to even out her legs — Abril’s right leg is two centimeters longer than her left, and she wears corrective inserts in her shoes to counteract the discrepancy. She begins her first year of university in the fall.
In 2004 she began training with Italian Andrea Bianco, now the Colombian national coach who also trains the country’s best male mountain biker, Leonardo Paez.
“I always knew she could medal as a junior because she started so early, but we carry on a volume of work that is based on her age. She does not train as an elite,” Bianco said. “We do not do a lot of volume yet, so I do not know how she will adapt. We don’t want to put too much pressure on her too young. That can squeeze a rider out.”
Canadian Emily Batty was the top North American finisher in the U23 race, rolling across the line in sixth place, five minutes down from Zakelj. Just 20, Batty is Canada’s reigning U23 national champion and the overall Canada Cup winner. She finished fifth at the opening round of the National Mountain Bike Series cross-country race in Fontana, California.
Batty completed the U23 race decked out in some bling — a vintage pearl necklace, some makeup sparkling earrings and her mother’s graduation ring.
“That’s just me, on and off the bike [dressing up] comes naturally for me,” Batty said. “I wear this stuff 24-7, it’s permanently there.”
- Canada’s Bianca Adolf was the top North American finisher in the junior women’s race, also finishing sixth, 6:46 down. The Canadian struggled with a slow start but worked her way forward in the technical, slippery descent. Adolf caught fifth-place rider Paula Borycka of Poland on the final lap, but crashed on the ensuing descent and settled for sixth.
Adolf, 17, missed her high school graduation to compete in her first world championships.
“I really want to be a professional cyclist,” said Adolf, 17. “This result makes it seem that much closer.”
Junior women’s cross-country
1. Laura Abril (Col), 1:16:08;
2. Barbara Benko (Hun), at 0:37;
3. Mona Eiberweiser (G), at 2:11;
4. Vivianne Meyer (Swi), at 3:18;
5. Paula Gorycka (Pol), at 6:31;
6. Bianca Adolf (Can), at 6:46;
7. Jana Valesova (Cz), at 7:46;
8. Cornelia Schuster (I), at 7:55;
9. Annie Last (GB), at 8:00;
10. Sanne Cant (B), at 8:10
Other North Americans
31. Jill Behlen (USA), at 21:51;
33. Diedre York (USA), at 24:14;
35. Leah Kirchmann (Can), at 25:34
U23 women’s cross-country
1. Tanja Zakelj (Slo), 1:35:31;
2. Nathalie Schneitter (Swi), at 2:58;
3. Aleksandra Dawidowicz (Pl), at 3:14;
4. Nataliya Krompets (Ukr), at 3:43;
5 Caroline Mani (F), at 4:04;
6. Emily Batty (Can), at 5:00;
7. Julie Krasniak (F), at 5:54;
8. Julie Bresset (F), at 6:11;
9. Maaike Polspoel (B), at 8:04;
10. Caniela Campuzano (Mex), at 8:09
Other North Americans
19. Jamie Dinkins (USA), at 16:14;