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By Neal Rogers
Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) and local favorite Shonny Vanlandingham (Luna) each took convincing cross-country wins Saturday at the final event of the NORBA National Series in Durango, Colorado, both securing their respective titles in the eight event series.
In the absence of NORBA Nationals regulars Todd Wells, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Seamus McGrath, Ryder Hesjedal, Mary McConneloug and Jimena Florit — all in Athens for the Olympic Games — the pressure was on for series leaders Kabush and Vanlandingham to maintain their leads.
Kabush’s main concern was the possibility of a DNF, as his lead over Trek-VW’s Travis Brown was more than 90 points (182 points is awarded for a win.) But, as Maxxis team director Eric Wallace told VeloNews, Kabush was racing with “two air cartridges, two tubes and every tool known to man,” to ensure he would not be plagued by a mechanical as he was earlier this year at Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho, when his pedal broke.
In the women’s series, Vanlandingham came to the start as de facto series leader, with overall points leader Florit away in Athens. Though series regulations allow for two of the eight results to be dropped in cumulating overall points, racers were required to attend the series finals, held again at the Durango Mountain Resort under sunny skies in near-perfect conditions.
In the men’s race Kabush found himself challenged solely by Giant’s Adam Craig, who led the Maxxis rider over the first of two 12-mile laps that dished up 1800 vertical feet of climbing per lap.
“Before the race Geoff and I were like, ‘We’re going to take it easy and let whoever wants to attack go for it. They’ll crack later and we’ll catch them,’” Craig said. “Then I ended up being that guy that went fast.”
The difference in the riding styles of the two leading riders — Kabush is more of a high-RPM spinner, while Craig, a power rider, prefers to pedal squares — was apparent on the climbs, which Craig pedaled mainly in the large chainring.
“Adam didn’t have a small chainring, but I threw on the little ring because that first climb is so steep it’s pushing even in my smallest gear,” Kabush said.
Said Craig: “Ryder [Hesjedal] had good luck going up that first climb in the large chain ring the first time. It doesn’t make you that tired. I’ve been riding the single-speed a bunch lately, so I’m used to low RPMs. I just gave her with that, opened up a big gap, and then realized I was going to kill myself if I kept doing that. I settled in, Kabush bridged up, and we just rode together the first lap. It was nice to be at the front racing for the lead, just trying not to do anything stupid.”
The pair opened up a 30-second gap on the first climb, followed by Trek-VW Rockies Regional team rider Brian Smith, having a career best ride. Behind Smith trailed Ryan Trebon (Kona-Clarks-Les Gets) and Specialized riders Jay Henry and mountain-bike legend Ned Overend.
On the second climb, Kabush again rode his 22-tooth front chainring while Craig mashed out the climb without a granny gear.
“Geoff turned it up a bit and I kind of knew better,” Craig said, explaining that he was “still feeling [his] body out” for the 9-12,000 foot elevation race.
“I just rode my own pace the second lap,” he said. “I was concerned about cracking with Ryan and Brian so close behind.”
Coming into the start/finish Kabush was handed a bottle of champagne by Wallace, and the Canadian took his time to enjoy the win after one hour and 54 minutes of racing. Despite missing both the Sonoma and Snow Summit rounds of the series, Kabush was crowned the overall winner on the same day as the men’s Olympic cross-country event, an event he finished ninth in four years ago.
Outperformed at the Canadian World Cups, Kabush was overlooked for Olympic team selection in favor of Hesjedal and McGrath.
“I feel like I’ve shown that I’m one of the top riders in North America,” Kabush said. “I didn’t have the luck and wasn’t able to put it together at the World Cups. I can’t complain that I wasn’t selected, but it’s still disappointing. I feel like I could have been a contender, but this is a nice consolation prize, to take the overall.”
Thirty-nine seconds back, Craig rolled in for second place, while Trebon took third. Making it a banner day for Maxxis, Colombian teammate Cesar Grajales, known best for his defeat of Lance Armstrong at the premier climbing stage at the Dodge Tour de Georgia, took fourth, his best-yet finish at a NORBA National.
With Trebon’s third-place finish— his fifth podium appearance in the series this year — the Kona rider edged out Trek-VW’s Travis Brown, eighth on the day, by just four points to take second in the series overall. Brown took third overall, with Canadian Chris Sheppard (Haro-adidas) fourth and Craig fifth.
The surprise performance of the day came from Smith, who rode in third place after the first lap before eventually slipping to fifth. It was the best-ever performance for the 28-year-old from Gunnison, Colorado, who works 40-hour weeks at a senior citizen’s home. Prior to Saturday, Smith’s best performance was 18th, at Mount Snow in 2002. His wife, Jennifer Smith (West Virginia-Bon Jovi), finished eighth in the women’s cross-country race, making the pair the first husband-and-wife-team to finish in the top 10 since David Wiens and Susan DeMattei raced in the late ’90s.
“I was hoping for a top-10 [in a NORBA National this season],” Smith said. “That was all I was shooting for. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be in the top 10 today.”
Finishing 11th was 49-year-old local hero Overend, who took the first-ever UCI world cross-country title over the same course in 1990. Overend was placed sixth after the first lap, but drifted back over the final miles. Still it was a better finish then two weeks earlier at Snowmass, when he took 25th.
“I was shooting for a podium finish,” said Overend. “You’ve got to aim high. But in the old days I could do a stronger second lap. I’ve got to do some longer rides to hang in there on that second lap. It’s a little disappointing to get shuffled back. That’s what happened in Snowmass, too. I was blown by the top of the climb and suffered in the little power sections. This whole field is tough, no one gives up.”
HOMETOWN GAL DOES GOOD
Also enjoying the local support was Vanlandingham, who won the same race last year for her first-ever NORBA National victory. With RLX-Ralph Lauren’s series leader Jimena Florit in Athens, the overall title was sure to fall on either Vanlandingham or Luna teammate Alison Dunlap, who were separated by just 16 points.
But it was all Vanlandingham on this day, as she led from start to finish, winning by a margin of over 1:30.
“I knew if I had one minute lead on the descent I could play it conservative,” Vanlandingham said. “I didn’t want to flat. There are a lot of rocks out there.”
Behind, Dunlap and Dara Marks-Marino dueled for second place, with Dunlap shadowing Marks-Marino until the final lap before making a move the Ford Cycling rider couldn’t counter.
“Once we were together, I let Dara do all the work,” Dunlap said. “I just sat on her. I didn’t want to bring Dara up to Shonny. Dara wasn’t really making any time on Shonny, so I just figured … I had been conservative the whole first lap, and I was hoping the second lap I could drop her and put a little time on her.”
The plan worked to perfection, and with Luna teammate Katarina Hanusova coming from 10th place on the first lap to fifth at the end, Luna took three spots on the day’s podium.
Coming down the final descent into the start/finish area, Vanlandingham’s smile could be seen from hundreds of yards away. As she rounded the final turn, she took the time to slap high-fives with spectators cheering her on.
“Last year I won my first NORBA here, and that was awesome, and this year I won the overall at the same event,” the native Texan said with a smile. “It’s definitely equal to that. To win in my hometown – it’s worked out really well. It’s a special course for me. It’s sustained climbing, which is what I really like. I seem to excel at it. It’s so painful, but I must like to suffer.”
For Dunlap, the 2001 world cross-country champion who missed out on the Olympic team this year due to an injury over one year ago, the result was bittersweet. Though she wouldn’t take the win or the series overall — missing by just 26 points — she was happy to see her friend and teammate take the honors.
“[Luna] really wanted to win the race and wanted to win the overall,” Dunlap said. “If [Vanlandingham] flatted, I was right there, or if I had a bad day, she was right there. On the first lap I was going as hard as I could. Shonny was strongest, by far. It wasn’t like I was just letting her go. I wanted to be there with her. It would have been great to be there with her, but she had the better legs, so it’s great that she won the overall. It’s been a great year. I’m thrilled for my teammate.”
For Marks-Marino, being stuck between the two Luna riders was an unenviable position but one she’s gotten used to, taking third on the day and fourth in the series behind RLX-Ralph Lauren’s Willow Koerber, who had an off-day and finished 10th, 10 minutes down.
“They are so strong, but that’s how it goes,” Marks-Marino said.
Vanlandingham said the series overall was equally as thrilling as last year’s first-ever NORBA win, and the day’s win was the plan from the start.
“I definitely wanted to go for the win,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, I could finish second if Alison wins, or I could finish fourth if Willow wins,’ but then I said, ‘You know, I’m not even going to think about that. I just want to win.’ Instead of being conservative I decided I’m just going for the win.”
Heading into Sunday’s short-track event, Dunlap leads Vanlandingham by a nearly insurmountable 87 points, while Kabush leads compatriot Chris Sheppard (Haro-adidas) by 103 points.
1 Geoff Kabush
2 Adam Craig
3 Ryan Trebon
4 Cesar Grajales
5 Brian Smith
1 Shonny Vanlandingham
2 Alison Dunlap
3 Dara Marks-Marino
4 Gretchen Reeves
5 Katerina Hanusova
Final overall standings
1 Geoff Kabush (Can)
2 Ryan Trebon (USA)
3 Travis Brown (USA)
4 Chris Sheppard (CAN)
5 Adam Craig (USA)
1 Shonny Vanlandingham (USA)
2 Alison Dunlap (USA)
3 Willow Koerber (USA)
4 Dara Marks-Marino (USA)
5 Kelli Emmett (USA)