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By Fred Dreier
In his final year of espoir eligibility, Swiss phenom Nino Schurter stormed to his second world U23 cross-country title in three years. The 2006 U23 champ, who took silver last year, rode on the heels of South Africa’s Burry Stander for the first five or six laps in Val di Sole, Italy, before attacking on the penultimate loop for the win.
“I attacked twice on the backside [of the course] and [Stander] could not close the gap,” said a triumphant Schurter. “It was in my advantage to have a mate riding behind us.”
Indeed, Schurter’s Swiss national teammate Luckas Fluckiger, the 2006 junior champ, chased in arrears after the duo separated early in the race. With the skinny Swissman chasing, Stander had no choice but to go to the front and pull. He kept the throttle on for five laps, eventually putting minutes into the gap to the third-placed rider. But Schurter rode confidently on Stander’s coattails, and with a slight wind blowing from the east, the Swiss rider enjoyed the draft.
“My first plan was to just stick with Nino at the start, but after we got the gap I knew Nino wasn’t going to work with a teammate in third,” Stander said. “Unfortunately for me drafting came into
play, and by the time we hit the fifth lap Nino had more in the tank and I paid for the earlier efforts.”
Schurter’s victory was sweet redemption for his silver medal performance in 2007. Last year Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang doggedly chased down the streaking Schurter in Fort William, Scotland, eventually dropping the Swiss rider on the final lap. The loss to his arch-rival pained the ’06 champ, and Schurter wore a grim face of disappointment on the finishing podium.
But in Val di Sole, Schurter was all smiles. And his effort earned him praise from Switzerland’s granddaddy of off-road racing, Thomas Frischknecht.
“Nino was in control; he looked very comfortable at all times of the race,” Frischknecht said. “Compared to last year, he didn’t do the same mistakes again. He just went with Burry and was stronger at the end.”
Coming into the Val di Sole worlds, many penned the Schurter-Stander showdown as one the best battles of the weekend. Schurter, who became a regular podium World Cup finisher last year, owns two second-place finishes at ’08 World Cup races. And Stander has shown himself to be the revelation of the ’08 season, finishing as high as second place at the Vallnord, Andorra World Cup. His quick progression has made the South African his country’s best-ever cross-country rider.
The two did not disappoint, and streaked out of the starting gate hot on each other’s heels. As the underdog, Stander knew the pressure would be on Schurter to drop him.
“Nino has been dominant over the years and I really have nothing to lose,” Stander said. “He was winning races when we were juniors and I was finishing nine minutes down. I don’t even have a world’s medal.”
Indeed Stander finished a distant sixth place in 2007, nearly five minutes in arrears. His second-place ride in Val di Sole earned South Africa it’s first ever worlds medal in cross-country racing.
“It was awesome and I really felt like I needed to get a medal,” Stander said. “I just decided to keep the pace up and try not to finish too far behind him.”
- The future appears bright for Switzerland. The Swiss finished four riders inside the top-10, with Fabian Giger and Pascal Meyer crossing the line in fourth and 10th place, respectively.
- Canada’s top rider, Raphael Gagne of Quebec, rolled across the line in 7th place. The top-10 finish matched Canada’s best U23 result since Max Plaxton’s bronze-medal ride in 2006.
- The top American rider was Tim Allen, who finished one lap down in 41st place. Reigning U23 champ Sam Jurekovic suffered a broken bike after crashing early in the race.
U23 men cross-country
1. Nino Schurter (Swi), 1:44:34
2. Burry Stander (SA), at 0:41
3. Matthias Fluckiger (Swi), at 3:46
4. Fabian Giger (Swi), at 4:54
5. Stephane Templer (F), at 5:55
6. Dario Alejandro Gasco (Arg), at 8:26
7. Raphael Gagne (Can), at 8:46
8. Frank Beemer (Nl), at 9:00
9. Pascal Meyer (Swi), at 9:22
10. Robert Gehbauer (Aut), at 9:50