Don't miss a moment from Paris-Roubaix and Unbound Gravel, to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and everything in between when you join Outside+.
By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
If depth is the true measure of a country’s cycling strength, then Canada certainly deserves the nod as one of the world’s best.
Despite fielding a team that included just one world’s team relay veteran, the Canadians powered to a 24-second win over Switzerland in the opening event of the 2004 world mountain bike championships at Les Gets, France on Wednesday. It was the third relay victory in four years for Canada, which also took the world’s title at Vail in 2001 and Kaprun in 2002.
“We know we have good depth,” said Geoff Kabush, who rode the opening leg of the four-lap race, giving Canada the early lead ahead of Poland and the U.S. “If there’s a chance to win the stripes you’ve got to give your best effort.”
Behind Canada, the Swiss team came back from a big first-lap deficit to claim silver, with 2003 world’s winner Poland settling for bronze. The U.S. team ended up eighth, four spots better than a year ago.
After holding the lead during the first two laps behind big efforts from Kabush and Max Plaxton (the only holdover from past relay teams), Canada fell back to seventh with Kiara Bisaro taking her turn against most of the other team’s junior men. That put Canada 1:54 behind the Swiss squad of Ralph Näf, Nino Schurter, Florian Vogel and anchor-leg rider Barbara Blatter going into the final lap, which left the race between Blatter and Canadian junior Raphaël Gagne.
“I knew [Blatter] was fast,” said the 17-year-old Gagne. “But I have compared my times to Marie-Helene Premont during races back home and I knew I could make up the time.
Indeed, after closing down five others, Gagne was able to reel in Blatter at the base of the final climb on the 6.3km course, then cruise home for the win.
The day’s outcome might have been different were it not for a mishap in the hours before the relay. Swiss elite man Ralph Näf was whipped in the eye by a tree branch during a training ride, which severely hampered his vision during the race. Näf said he would have sat out the race, but the team missed the cutoff for changing its roster.
That left Näf to stumble around the deceptively tricky Les Gets course, finishing a distant 13th, at 1:48, just two weeks after taking sixth in the Olympics.
“I couldn’t see well at all out of my [right] eye,” said Näf, who had blood trickling down his right knee and dirt all over the back of his red, black and white national team uniform. “I crashed several times, dropped my chain twice; it was just a nightmare. Even when I tried running I crashed.”
In front of Näf, Kabush was turning what would equal the day’s fastest lap, making the opening lap trip in a sizzling 15:50. Next through was Pole Marcin Karczynski, at 0:15, followed by America’s Adam Craig six seconds later.
“It’s so nice to be feeling good at this time of year,” said Craig, who was second behind Kabush at the NORBA series finals in Durango two weeks ago. “Our strategy was to get a good start to keep morale high. Some people were calling us the B-team, but I think we proved that wrong.”
This start-fast strategy was employed by nearly all the teams, with 10 choosing to open the race with their elite man, while the other six went with their U23 rider on the first leg.
Lap two belonged to the Swiss, who pulled back seven places behind under-23 rider Vogel, who equaled Kabush’s 15:50. The Poles held onto second place, with Sweden jumping into third. Kelli Emmett rode the second leg for the U.S., carding the slowest lap 2 time. But Emmett was one of just two women on the course, and her 20:58 actually equaled that of Aussie Lisa Mathison, who was 10th two weeks ago in Athens.
“I didn’t even find out until about 5 o’clock yesterday that I was doing the race,” said Emmett, who got the nod in part because Alison Dunlap and Shonny Vanlandingham have yet to arrive in France. “But I had a good time. It was fun to do some efforts and the course is a blast.”
The U.S. entered the second half or the race in 15th, but strong efforts by junior Sam Jurkovic and Alan Obye pulled the Americans back into the top 10.
“We had a strong start and a strong finish,” said USA Cycling’s mountain bike coach Mat Cramer. “I think they all did a great job.”
The top job went to the Canadians, though. After Bisaro held her own on lap 3 (her 19:46 was only 21 seconds slower than Blatter), Gagne took over and drove it home for the win.
“Everybody pulled off a good lap and that’s what it’s all about,” said Canadian great Alison Sydor, who was watching course side. “Raphaël was so smart and so calm. In the past we’d always gone with the woman last, but he dealt with the pressure.”
Racing in Les Gets continues Thursday with the junior women’s cross-country at 10:30. Friday brings the uner-23 and junior men’s XC, with both downhill and four-cross finals Saturday and the men’s and women’s cross-country on Sunday. Check back throughout the weekend for reports, results and photos.
2004 WORLD MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIPS; LES GETS, FRANCE. SEPTEMBER 8-12; TEAM RELAY; 1. Canada (Geoff Kabush, Max Plaxton, Kiara Bisaro, Ralpaël Gagne), 1:09:00; 2. Switzerland (Ralph Näf, Florian Vogel, Nino Schurter, Barbara Blatter), at 0:24; 3. Poland (Marcin Karczynski, Kryspin Pyrgies, Pawel Szpila, Maja Wloszczowska), at 0:57; 4. France, at 1:31; 5. Italy, at 2:22; 6. Sweden, at 2:29; 7. Czech Republic, at 2:35; 8. USA (Adam Craig, Kelli Emmett, Sam Jurkovic, Alan Obye), at 3:14; 9. Netherlands, at 3:33; 10. Spain, at 4:34; 11. Germany, at 5:06; 12. New Zealand, at 5:26; 13. Belgium, at 6:05; 14. Australia, at 7:12; 15. Slovenia, at 9:30; 16. Colombia, at 17:09