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MTB world’s: Absalon adds rainbow jersey to Olympic gold

You might think a weekend that included a broken arm for Anne-Caroline Chausson, a DNF for Miguel Martinez and no podiums for Cédric Gracia would be considered a disaster for French mountain biking. And you might think it was even worse when you added in the fact that this was the weekend of the world mountain bike championships — and the event was being held in France. But clearly a new era has dawned for the country that puts on the world’s biggest cycling show each summer. And while the French may continue to search for new stars at their grand tour in July, their fat-tire ranks are thick

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

Absalon heads to the end of the rainbow.

Absalon heads to the end of the rainbow.

Photo: Tom Moran

You might think a weekend that included a broken arm for Anne-Caroline Chausson, a DNF for Miguel Martinez and no podiums for Cédric Gracia would be considered a disaster for French mountain biking. And you might think it was even worse when you added in the fact that this was the weekend of the world mountain bike championships — and the event was being held in France. But clearly a new era has dawned for the country that puts on the world’s biggest cycling show each summer.

And while the French may continue to search for new stars at their grand tour in July, their fat-tire ranks are thick with young talent.

Saturday in Les Gets brought victory for Fabian Barel in the men’s downhill, plus a sweep of the top two places in the junior downhill race. Sunday brought more of the same, as newly crowned Olympic champion Julien Absalon affirmed his status as the sport’s new rock star, taking a convincing 57-second win in the 37.9km men’s cross-country.

Frischknecht made the podium once again.

Frischknecht made the podium once again.

Photo: Tom Moran

“I am really surprised by this day,” admitted Absalon, who joined Martinez as the only men to hold the Olympic and world cross-country titles at the same time. “I knew I had the form, but with everything that’s been going on after the Olympics, I didn’t think I would be able to get a medal here, too. But a few days ago my coach sat me down and said, ‘Julien, you should go for this, you are still in good shape.’ Yesterday I decided he was right, and today I did it.”

Completing the French fiesta was the surprising ride of 25-year-old Cedric Ravanel, who jumped from ninth after the first of six laps all the way to second by the finish.

“I had my sights set on this race for a long time,” said Ravanel, who was not part of the three-rider contingent France sent to Athens for the Olympic cross-country. “This race is near my home in Chamonix, so it was very important for me.”

Thomas Frischknecht completed the world’s podium, doing a ride that was as impressive as any on this muddy day in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Never one to shy away from the muck, Frischknecht bolted to an early lead, posting the fastest time of the day when he carded a 20:59 on the first lap. The Swiss legend would maintain that advantage through the end of the ensuing lap, but a nasty case of chain suck cost him two minutes during lap three, dropping him back to sixth.

“It was a typical Thomas Frischknecht day,” said the World Cup wins leader, who has now medaled in four straight world cross-country championships. “I had a good day, but things never seem to go perfectly for me. My chain got caught between my chainring and my frame and there was so much mud on the bike that it took me a minute to figure out what was the problem. Then I had to be very careful when I was fixing it.”

Indeed, while the women’s race held Sunday morning bore the brunt of an overnight rainstorm that lasted into early afternoon, the men still had to tangle with a course choked with mud. Numerous sections — both ascents and descents — that had been navigable during training were too slick to ride during the race. The toughest test was the course’s steep final climb, which was lined two and three deep from top to bottom. No one was riding the entire way, and some were reduced to a lumbering pace as they searched for any bit of traction on the slick, grassy slope.

“There was just too much running for me,” said Belgian Roel Paulissen, who had taken over the final podium place from a fading Marek Galinski of Poland on lap five, only to have Frischknecht storm past him within sight of the finish line and snatch the bronze medal. The difference was just four seconds by the finish.

The running didn’t bother Absalon, though. After crashing early in the race and falling to sixth at the end of the first lap, the Olympic champ slowly started pulling his way back to the front. He was fourth at the end of the second lap, and had overtaken early leader Galinski by the end of lap 4. From there Absalon was willed to the win by the huge partisan crowd (one UCI official put the estimate at 35,000).

“The support was amazing,” said Absalon. “I can not say enough.”

There was no need to say anything. His actions had done all the talking.

Race notes
Mixed day for the North Americans
Following a disappointing DNF at the Olympic race two weeks ago, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal came to Les Gets with high hopes. The small ski town was the site of his first World Cup win back in 2002.

But according to Subaru-Gary Fisher team manager Tyler Pilger, Hesjedal had suffered a nasty training crash in Spain during the off-week after Athens, and while his bruised knee didn’t bother him too badly if he was riding, the running was too much to bear. After dangling just off the front through the first two laps, Hesjedal dropped out of the race.

The DNF list also claimed U.S. Olympian Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and teammate Ryan Trebon. Trebon had a nightmare start, jamming his chaining just 10 feet past the start line. It took Trebon at least a minute to sort out the problem, and he never had a chance to make a mark on the race.

Three North Americans did manage to crack the top 20, with U.S. Olympian Todd Wells leading the way in 14th. Wells had his typical slow start and was 33rd at the end of the first lap, but his steady pace and solid cyclo-cross skills helped him climb back through the ranks. His times for laps 3-5 were 11th best.

“I can’t ride as fast as these guys at the start and when I try to go out with them I just blow up,” said Wells. “Better for me to just start easy. There was plenty of passing on this course. The ’cross skills helped ’cause I knew where to get off before I came to a dead stop.”

Right behind Wells were Canadians Geoff Kabush and Chris Sheppard, in 16th and 17th.

“I got a little caught up at the start, the usual stuff,” said Kabush. “But think everyone was having some kind of shifting problems. The conditions were pretty heinous.”

The other North Americans to finish on the lead lap included Adam Craig (24th), Jeremiah Bishop (25th) and Ricky Federau (26th).

“I felt like shit,” said Craig. “I have no idea why. I couldn’t go fast at all. But this was an awesome race. It was a true test of bring what you got.”

The mountain bike circuit now heads south into Italy for the World Cup finals in Livigno. The event will be a precursor to next year’s world championships, which will also be held there.

Photo Gallery

Results

2004 WORLD MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIPS; LES GETS, FRANCE. SEPTEMBER 8-12; MEN’S CROSS-COUNTRY; Julien Absalon (F), 39.7km in 2:20:37; 2. Cedric Ravanel (F), at 0:57; 3. Thomas Frischknecht (Swi), at 1:44; 4. Roel Paulissen (B), at 1:48; 5. Marek Galinski (P), at 2:57; 6. Lado Fumic (G), at 3:18; 7. Kashi Leuchs (NZ), at 3:45; 8. Jean-Christophe Peraud (F), at 5:48; 9. Martino Fruet (I), at 5:53; 10. Michael Weiss (A), at 7:14

North Americans; 14. Todd Wells (USA), at 9:26; 15. Geoff Kabush (Can), at 9:42; 16. Chris Sheppard (Can), at 9:52; 24. Adam Craig (USA), at 24:00; 25. Jeremiah Bishop (USA), at 14:22; 26. Ricky Federau (Can), at 14:54; 51. Mathieu Toulouse (Can), -1 lap; 55. Michael Broderick (USA), -1 lap; 57. Jay Henry (USA), -1 lap; 58. Peter Wedge (Can), -1 lap; 65. Roddi Lega (Can), -2 laps; DNFs; Ryder Hesjedal (Can); Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (USA), Ryan Trebon (USA)