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By Fred Dreier
Julien Absalon can cross Houffalize off his list.
Before his victory at Sunday’s World Cup opener in Belgium, the Frenchman had won on every classic World Cup course save this one. In 2007 he came close, but had to settle for second behind a streaking Jose Antonio Hermida.
But beneath a clearing Ardennes sky, Absalon took his first Houffalize victory with the calculated dominance that has come to characterize his racing. The Frenchman rode confidently in the second position for the first half of the elite men’s race, systematically shutting down attacks from his rivals. With three laps to go, Absalon simply rode away from young Swiss star Nino Schurter and held a 51-second advantage to the line.
“It is amazing. It was a perfect win for me today,” the jubilant Frenchman said after crossing the line in downtown Houffalize. “Before I have been so close. It was the one race to escape me.”
Absalon took his win after Chengyuan Ren (Chinese National) repeated her 2007 victory in the women’s race, taking her second career World Cup. The Chinese rider spent the first half of the four-lap race riding in sixth place before surging to the front on the final lap to win ahead of reigning world and World Cup champion Irina Kalentieva (Ergon-Topeak) of Russia.
Big crowds, big mud
Houffalize is hallowed ground in cross-country mountain-bike racing. Since 1992 the rural town on Belgium’s eastern shoulder has hosted 15 rounds of the World Cup. Its winners constitute a true who’s who of fat-tire racing: John Tomac (’92), Henk Djernis (’94), Miguel Martinez (’97), Filip Meirhaeghe (2000) and Roland Green (’01).
And it’s not just Houffalize’s past that makes the 6.7km loop shine. The spectator-friendly course traces a twisting loop around the town, which sits in a bowl-shaped valley deep in the Ardennes. Each year tens of thousands of cycling-mad, beer-swilling Belgians clog the town’s streets and trail network to watch the battle ensue on the surrounding hillsides.
“It is the best race of the World Cups to win this year — the course is classic and there are so many spectators every year,” said Christoph Sauser, who won at Houffalize in 2002.
The hordes showed up again this year. But along with their beer steins and bratwursts, the bike fans came bearing rubber Wellingtons and galoshes. Following an unseasonably wet March and early April, including rain during the entire day before the event, Houffalize and its forest were soaked on race day. The amateur and junior races held the day prior to the World Cup chewed the course into a slick avenue of mud.
While sunshine peeked through the fog in the morning hours of race day, the 10:30 a.m. women’s event sent riders straight into the muck.
“The first lap was sketchy because it was really slick,” said American Mary McConneloug. “I know a lot of women have trouble riding this stuff. Everyone was off their bikes on the first descent.”
But before the downhill, riders sped from town straight up a painfully steep stretch of pavement, which is also featured in next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège road race. The Spanish climbing specialist Marga Fullana (Illes-Baleares), who owns four Houffalize victories, sped away.
The move immediately shattered the women’s field, with Canadian Marie-Héléne Prémont (Rocky Mountain) riding 10 seconds in arrears, followed 30 seconds later by compatriot Catherine Pendrel (Luna), Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjå (Multivan-Merida) and Kalentieva. American Georgia Gould (Luna) spun by 20 seconds later, followed closely by Ren and Czech Tereza Hurikova (Ceska Sporitelna).
The women held their positions for two laps, with the next reshuffling coming on the penultimate loop. A slowly leaking tire forced Prémont off her rig for a quick inflation, allowing Kalentieva and Gould to catch the Canadian. A fading Pendrel rode a few seconds in arrears, towing Dahle-Flesjå and Ren.
The Chinese rider, who took the U23 world title in 2006 and finished second last year, made her move on the final lap. Kalentieva and Ren chased down the gassed Fullana on the course’s steep climb. At the base Fullana owned a 35-second advantage; by the summit it was less than 10.
After the duo caught and dropped the Spaniard, Ren charged ahead on a short uphill and held her gap to the line.
“After the second feed zone she was pushing really hard and, ah, I could not stay,” Kalentieva said. “I did not risk losing it all.”
Ren said she made the late charge because the course began to dry out in the sunshine.
“The course was very muddy in the morning and I did not like my chances, I thought it would be too muddy for me to hold my confidence,” said Ren through a translator. “Later the sun made the course less slippery and I was able to really take advantage.”
Absalon swats the Swiss
Absalon did not predict victory on the eve of the Houffalize race, expecting one of the Swiss riders battling for three Olympic spots to take the win.
Indeed, Swiss Florian Vogel appeared the man for the day. Vogel, who has won the first three Swisspower Cups, took the lead on the course’s first singletrack section after Absalon led up the paved climb.
But Vogel snapped his chain on the opening lap, and while Swisspower teammate Thomas Frischknecht surrendered his own chain to Vogel, Absalon and the front of the race were long gone.
The next rider to play his cards was Hermida, who surged ahead on the swooping, switchbacked climb out of town. Clad in his yellow Spanish national champion’s jersey, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist opened a small gap on Absalon for much of the second lap. But Absalon caught the Spaniard up the ensuing climb, and then left Hermida in his wake.
Schurter, the 2006 U23 world champ, went next. The move drew Absalon from the pack, and the duo spun through the start/finish with a 20-second gap on a handful of chasers.
Many have penned Schurter as the World Cup’s next great rider, due to his attacking style and descending skills. The Swiss admitted he came into the race hoping for one of Switzerland’s three Olympic spots — and that’s why he didn’t follow Absalon’s winning move.
“I decided to ride my speed. I saw that Absalon was too fast for me and I did not want to risk it all,” Schurter said. “This is good. Now I am in the pool for the Olympic team.”
A top-eight finish at a World Cup, the world championships or the European championships qualifies a Swiss man for the Olympic pool. The country’s Olympic committee will make the final choice in the lead-up to the Games.
Schurter’s compatriot Sauser also earned a spot in that pool by finishing third. Sauser clipped his pedal on the start and shot back into the mid-30s before beginning to chew through the field.
Sauser gained ground quickly, but Schurter proved too far ahead to chase down.
As for Absalon, he was on his way to making history.
- Sixty of the 105 women to begin the race finished on the same lap. Of the 257 men’s starters, 107 finished.
- Four-time world champion and Olympic champ Dahle Flesjå said she was more than happy with her sixth-place finish. The Norwegian, who was off her bike from June through November with a stomach virus, came into the World Cup season hoping to find her form in preparation for the Games. “It was a surprise. This is a lot of positive things for me. The confidence is now back,” she said. “I was suffering like hell today.”
- The UCI no longer invites the top-five finishes onto the podium; just the top three. But the World Cup now holds podium ceremonies for the top-three elite and U23 riders, as well as the top team. Absalon’s Orbea squad took the men’s team competition, while the Berkeley-based Luna squad won the women’s team race.
2008 UCI World Cup
April 20, 2008
1. Julien Absalon (F), Orbea, 39.32km in 2:06:56
2. Nino Schurter (Swi), Swisspower, at 0:51
3. Christoph Sauser (Swi), Specialized, at 1:14
4. Jakob Fuglsang (Dk), Cannondale-Vredestein, at 2:00
5. Cedric Ravanel (F), Lapierre, at 2:37
6. Jean-Christophe Peraud (F), Orbea, at 3:10
7. Jose Antonio Hermida (Sp), Multivan-Merida, at 3:33
8. Roel Paulissen (B), Cannondale-Vredestein, at 3:55
9. Kashi Leuchs (NZ), Cannondale-Vredestein, at 4:10
10. Martin Gujan (Swi), Athleticum, at 4:34
11. Todd Wells, GT, at 5:16
12. Geoff Kabush (Can), Maxxis, at 5:30
15. Adam Craig, Giant, at 5:55
23. Seamus McGrath (Can), Fuji, at 7:49
52. Ricky Federau, at 13:56
60. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 15:28
61. Barry Wicks, Kona, at 15:37
77. Jeremiah Bishop, Trek-Volkswagen, at 17:23
88. Derek Zandstra (Can), at 19:10
1. Chengyuan Ren (Chn), Chinese National, 2:11:06
2. Irina Kalentieva (Rus), Ergon-Topeak, at 0:35
3. Marie-Héléne Prémont (Can), Rocky Mountain, at 1:08
4. Margarita Fullana (Sp), Massi-Illes Baleares, at 2:23
5. Georgia Gould, Luna, at 2:47
6. Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja, Multivan-Merida, at 4:00
7. Nathalie Schneitter (Swi), Colnago, at 4:13
8. Petra Henzi (Swi), Fischer-BMC, at 4:26
9. Tereza Hurikova (Cz), Ceska Sporitelna, at 5:06
10. Sabine Spitz (G), Central Ghost team, at 5:38
13. Catherine Pendrel (Can), Luna, at 6:39
14. Kiara Bisaro (Can), Opus, at 6:57
18. Mary McConneloug, Seven-Kenda, at 10:15
22. Heather Irmiger, Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 12:42
24. Sandra Walter (Can), Fuji, at 12:45
26. Wendy Simms (Can), Kona, at 14:02
36. Susan Haywood, Trek-Volkswagen, at 17:14
38. Amanda Sin (Can), at 17:27
44. Willow Koerber, Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 20:08
56. Mical Dyck (Can), Trek, at 25:36