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Calgary: Dahle, Meirhaeghe take XC wins

On a day with more story lines than a Tom Clancy novel, Filip Meirhaeghe and Gunn-Rita Dahle reaffirmed their status as Olympic favorites, after each took impressive cross-county wins at World Cup No. 6 at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. As for the litany of North American Olympic spot battles, it was Americans Mary McConneloug, Todd Wells and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski closing in on start spots in Athens, while Canadians Marie-Helene Premont, Kiara Bisaro and Seamus McGrath also looked to be a step closer to their Olympic dreams. Following the women’s race, which was yet another dominating

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

On a day with more story lines than a Tom Clancy novel, Filip Meirhaeghe and Gunn-Rita Dahle reaffirmed their status as Olympic favorites, after each took impressive cross-county wins at World Cup No. 6 at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

As for the litany of North American Olympic spot battles, it was Americans Mary McConneloug, Todd Wells and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski closing in on start spots in Athens, while Canadians Marie-Helene Premont, Kiara Bisaro and Seamus McGrath also looked to be a step closer to their Olympic dreams.

Following the women’s race, which was yet another dominating effort by Dahle (Multivan-Merida), the men headed out for seven laps around the reasonably tame 5.5km circuit set near the base of the 90-meter Nordic ski jump, 20 minutes from downtown Calgary. But midway through the race, a punishing summer storm rolled in from the west, dumping torrential rain and even several minutes of hail on a field that started with 93 riders, but would see only 31 finish on the lead lap.

Initially it looked like a day for the gang from Siemens-Cannondale, with Christoph Sauser and Roel Paulissen pulling off the front and opening up a 33-second gap at the end of the second lap.

“Everything looked good for us,” said Sauser, who had his eyes on the overall series lead, after coming into Saturday’s race two spots back of leader Meirhaeghe.

Behind the Cannondale duo, were several chase groups, led by Meirhaeghe (Specialized), Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan-Merida) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Lapierre International). Next up were McGrath (Haro-adidas) and Frederik Kessiakoff (Siemens-Cannondale). This was a huge day for McGrath, who needed a strong result to claim one of two men’s XC spot on the Canadian Olympic team.

McGrath was in a fight with Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) and Roland Green (Trek-Volkswagen), with the assumption that Ryder Hesjedal had already done enough to grab the committee’s choice spot no matter what happened in Calgary. Hesjedal made things interesting, though, dropping out of the race just after the finish of the first lap, saying he simply didn’t feel right and didn’t want to jeopardize his health heading into the most important part of the season.

“I just couldn’t hold my intensity and I’ve got to listen to my body,” said Hesjedal (Subaru-Gary Fisher), who didn’t think his poor outing would have any effect on his status for the Olympics. “If anyone questions my ability to fight, then they’re not following the sport. I don’t think there is any question where I’ll be in August.”

Meanwhile, neither Kabush nor Green was having the standout kind of day necessary to sway Hesjedal’s (or presumably the Canadian Cycling Association committee’s) opinion that he and good friend McGrath belonged on the Olympic team.

Green, who has been battling a bacterial infection all year, fought gamely early on, but dropped out after the weather took its frightful turn. That left the two-time world champion with one World Cup race finish in five tries.

Kabush did survive to the finish, but his 21st place effort (compared to a seventh for McGrath) surely wouldn’t be enough to get him on the Olympic team. In the final tally, Hesjedal held onto the first selection spot based on superior combined World Cup results, while McGrath made a convincing case for the committee’s choice.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt after today,” said McGrath, who flatted out of the 2000 Olympic selection race, allowing Kabush to go to Sydney. “Cycling is about what have you done lately and I’ve been the best guy lately.”

As for the Americans, it was Trek-Volkswagen’s Jeremiah Bishop posting the day’s best finish in ninth. But with Wells (GT-Hyundai) in 10th and Horgan-Kobelski (RLX Ralph Lauren) in 11th, it looks almost certain the later pair will be donning the red, white and blue in Greece. JHK’s effort solidified his spot as the No. 1 American in the UCI rankings (the primary USA Cycling selection criteria), and with an already weak field being withered even more by the weather, Wells was able to jump from 36th to 21st in the World Cup standings, satisfying the second USAC criteria.

The only way Bishop could change that would be to jump past Horgan-Kobelski in the UCI rankings to be issued after next weekend’s marathon world championship in Austria. But based on some quick VeloNews math, even if Bishop won what is sure to be a stacked race, eclipsing Horgan-Kobelski in the UCI rankings is a near statistical impossibility.

“I knew with all the guys not showing up for this race I could make the jump,” said Wells, who picked up 10 places between the second lap and the finish in Calgary. “I’d been starting too fast all year and blowing up, so I decided to slow it down a little and try to stay strong to the finish.”

It was Meirhaeghe who was strongest at the finish, though, The Belgian passed a flounder Sauser when the rain hit, winning the 41.9km race in 2:10:35, 3:28 ahead of the Swiss rider. Hermida came in third, with Peraud fourth and fellow Frenchman Ludovic Dubau fifth.

“When it started to hail, I was coming into the wind near the finish area, and it was so painful,” recalled Meirhaeghe, who picked up his second straight and third World Cup win of 2004. “I had a freeze headache and I think maybe I should just go back to the truck. But I decide I should keep going, and when I turned away from the wind the hail did not hurt so much.”

Earlier in the day, under much friendlier conditions, the amazing run of Dahle rolled on, with the Merida rider took another convincing World Cup cross-country win. The victory was her 10th in her last 10 starts on the circuit, dating back to the 2003 season opener, and locked up her second straight overall series title. Dahle now has 15 career World Cup wins, just two shy of Canadian Alison Sydor, who is second all-time behind American Juli Furtado.

With Dahle’s wins almost expected these days, the big story in the women’s race was McConneloug (Seven), who posted a career-best second-place World Cup finish, crossing the finish 45 seconds back of the Norwegian. That effort, combined with rough day for primary competitor Sue Haywood, who finished 15th, gave McConneloug a solid lead with just one race to go in the battle for the lone U.S. women’s start spot at this summer’s Olympics.

Coming into Calgary the two women were separated by one point in the UCI rankings, which will be used to select the single start spot. McConneloug’s second place result was worth 130 UCI points, while Haywood (Trek-Volkswagen) earned 75. Still, the 55-point difference could be overturned next Sunday at the marathon world championships, where a win is worth 200 UCI points, fifth carries 135, and 10th brings 115.

“I’m still going,” said Haywood of the race next weekend. “It’s daunting to know that it’s going to come down to a five-hour race when an hour-50 was hard enough today. But I’m not giving up.”

Meanwhile, McConneloug was glowing following an effort that not only gave her the points lead, but also fully justified the idea that she may well end up in Athens.

“This proves to me that I can get on the podium at a World Cup,” the reigning U.S. national champion said. “Anyone who didn’t think I deserved to be in this position can see what I capable of.”

As for the Canadian Olympic battles, Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) locked up one spot, placing fourth, one spot back of Italy’s Annabella Stropparo (Italian National). Fifth place went to German Ivonne Kraft (Ghost). Premont’s result gave her an Olympic berth based on superior World Cup results. Also making a solid case for Athens was Kiara Bisaro (Gearsracing.com), who finished 14th in Calgary, two spots ahead of her primary competitor, Chrissy Redden (Subaru-Gary Fisher).

“I wasn’t feeling very good today,” said Bisaro. “But I think this puts me in a good position for the committee’s choice. I’m just glad the whole [selection process] is over.”

The day also marked the end of the line for Alison Dunlap’s valiant effort to get to Athens. The Luna rider ended up seventh, then said she was relieved the whole points chase was over.

“It’s done,” said Dunlap. “I’m going to go home and go camping for a week and try to forget about the whole thing.”

Dunlap also hinted this year might be the end for her cycling career. “I’ve had an awesome career. It’s been 15 years,” she said. “But there’s other things I want to do. I want to start a family. I want to be with my family more. The decision isn’t made yet — [Luna] wants me to keep racing — but I’m definitely going to give it some serious thought.”

Racing in Calgary concludes Sunday with the downhill finals at 2:30 Mountain time. Check back to VeloNews.com for a full report.

Results

UCI MOUNTAIN BIKE WORLD CUP; CALGARY, ALBERTA, JULY 2-4; CROSS-COUNTRY NO. 6; MEN: 1. Filip Meirhaeghe (Specialized), 41.9km in 2:10:35; 2. Christoph Sauser (Swi), Siemens-Cannondale, at 3:28; 3. Jose Antonio Hermida (Sp), Multivan-Merida, at 4:44; 4. Jean-Christophe Peraud (F), Lapierre International, at 4:51; 5. Ludovic Dubau (F), Devinci, 5:02; 6. Roel Paulissen (B), Siemens-Cannondale, at 6:00; 7. Seamus McGrath (Can), Haro-adidas, at 6:19; 8. Liam Killeen (GB), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 6:23; 9. Jeremiah Bishop (USA), Trek-Volkswagen, at 7:13; 10. Todd Wells (USA), GT-Hyundai, at 8:32; OTHER NORTH AMERICANS; 11. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (USA), RLX Ralph Lauren, at 9:45; 14. Max Plaxton (Can), Rocky Mountain-Business Objects, at 11:20; 18. Chris Sheppard (Can), Haro-adidas, at 12:46; 19. Adam Craig (USA), Giant-Pearl Izumi, at 13:57; 20. Mathieu Toulouse (Can), Gearsracing.com, 14:24


WOMEN: 1. Gunn-Rita Dahle (N), Multivan-Merida, 30.1km in 1:46:28; 2. Mary McConneloug (USA), Seven, at 0:46; 3. Annabella Stropparo (I), Italian National, at 2:20; 4. Marie-Helene Premont (Can), Rocky Mountain-Business Objects, at 3:02; 5. Ivonne Kraft (G), Ghost, at 3:33; 6. Elena Giacomuzzi (I), 3:57; 7. Alison Dunlap (USA), Luna, at 4:25; 8. Alison Sydor (Can), Rocky Mountain-Business Objects, at 4:38; 9. Shonny Vanlandingham (USA), Luna, at 4:55; 10. Willow Koerber (USA), RLX Ralph Lauren, at 5:05; OTHER NORTH AMERICANS; 13. Kelli Emmett (USA), Specialized, at 7:55; 14. Kiara Bisaro (Can), Gearsracing.com, at 8:29; 15. Sue Haywood (USA), Trek-Volkswagen, at 8:53; 16. Chrissy Redden (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher, 9:34; 17. Dara Marks-Marino (USA), Ford Cycling, at 9:45; 18. Kerry Barnholt (USA), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 10:20; 19. Heather Irmiger (USA), Tokyo Joe’s, at 11:05


OVERALL STANDINGS; (through 6 of 7 events); MEN: 1. Meirhaeghe, 1165 points; 2. Sauser, 1065; 3. Paulissen, 965; 4. Peraud, 740; 5. Hermida, 719; 6. Julien Absalon (F), Bianchi-Agos, 590; 7. Bart Brentjens (Nl), T-Mobile, 491; 8. Killeen, 470; 9. Lado Fumic (G), T-Mobile, 451; 10. Horgan-Kobelski, 343


WOMEN: 1. Dahle, 1250 points; 2. Stropparo, 780; 3. Premont, 720; 4. Irina Kalentieva (Rus), Multivan-Merida, 651; 5. Sydor, 595; 6. Dunlap, 565; 7. McConneloug, 547; 8. Bisaro, 477; 9. Kraft, 467; 10. Barbara Blatter (Swi), Specialized, 465