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Crossland Anaysis: Swiss hopes rest with two young riders

After brilliant rides in Roubaix, Jasmin Achermann and Julien Taramarcaz are the torchbearers for Swiss ’cross fans bent on returning to the top

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ROUBAIX, France (VN) — For the first time since Thomas Frischknecht won the silver medal in Munich in 1997, Switzerland may have a real chance at a podium at the 2013 elite cyclcocross world championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Two young Swiss riders, Jasmin Achermann (Rapha-Focus) and Julien Taramarcaz (BMC Racing), are in the midst of spectacular seasons, and have raised Swiss medal hopes to new heights.

Achermann and Taramarcaz came away from the fourth round of the UCI World Cup on Sunday with third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, having successfully matched up against the established leaders of the sport.

For Swiss fans, the rise of Taramarcaz and Achermann offers real hope of at least a partial restoration of a one-time dynasty. The Swiss dominated in the 1970s and found success into the 1980s. Swiss riders earned at least one worlds podium position in all but three years between 1972 and 1988, sweeping the 1976 worlds and going one-two for three more years after that. But in recent years, top-caliber success has been elusive. Perennial champion Christian Heule retired last season after racing competitively in Belgium for many years, but never reached the heights that his countrymen, riders like Albert Zweifel and Peter Frischknecht did.

On Sunday, however, came a glimmer of hope.

Prospects are rising for part-time baker Achermann

The 23-year-old Achermann rode a wave of emotion to her World Cup career-best third-place finish on the grounds of the legendary velodrome that doubles as the finish of the classic Paris-Roubaix. Achermann rolled tearfully across the line alone, gesturing at the sky, remembering her Swiss national team mechanic Erwin Wildhaber, who died earlier this week of injuries sustained in a fall while hiking in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

But the Swiss champion’s tears of sorrow quickly became tears of joy as she absorbed the significance of her accomplishment.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, laughing, in a post-race press conference. “In the beginning of the season I was hoping to ride to top-10 finishes. Last year I was never top 10 in the World Cup. I’m living my dream!”

Achermann first showed her potential as a future start with a fifth-place finish at worlds in Sankt Wendel, Germany, two years ago. But last season she did not crack the top 10 in a single World Cup race. But she has had a breakout season, going from a World Cup best of 12th place last year to ninth at the worlds in Koksijde in January to being a staple of the World Cup top 10 this fall. Sunday’s third place moves her to fifth overall in the World Cup and to within striking distance of the top three overall.

And, unique among top-ranked women’s cyclocrossers, she has achieved her success while simultaneously holding down a job in a bakery in her hometown of Gunzwil, Switzerland. While most of her Rapha teammates have spent considerable time racing in the United States in 2012, Achermann’s day job has kept her at home between the major European objectives.

“It’s hard, but I like it,” she said. “But it’s not possible for me to go to the States (with my Rapha teammates). So I do my races and the people from Rapha say, ‘You can do what you can do.’ So for me, that’s a dream.”

Nonetheless, despite her success this season, Achermann remains committed to her own racing and her own goals.

“I can’t be stronger than I am,” said Achermann. “So my goal is to do top-10 places in all the World Cups and I think I can do a top-10 place in the worlds. That’s good for me. It’s a little dream for me to be top 10 in the World Cup classification.”

If Achermann’s race on Sunday was evidence, her focus on meeting goals by staying within herself seems to be working. Achermann used skillful bike handling and a bit of luck to dodge the chaos on two steep descents and go clear of all but a single rider, Sanne Van Paassen (Rabobank), by the end of the third lap. Alone on the course for much of the day, she simply focused on staying smooth and fast, aware of the possibility of a big result, but careful not to become overambitious.

“I just rode my own race,” she told reporters. “I didn’t look ahead or behind me, so I just did it at my own pace. I saw the people ahead of me, and it was motivation to go fast. But I couldn’t go back to the front. But for me, riding in third place at the moment, I couldn’t do more. If I had gone faster, it would have been over for me.”

But she added that she couldn’t say to what, exactly, she should credit this season’s step forward. Swiss cyclocross, famous for its heavy mud and demanding courses, has surely prepared her well for the challenges of racing on the world stage. She favors technical courses — and has shown she can succeed on them — but better motor-paced training this year has helped her speed as well.

Whatever the reason, the improved Achermann may already have a claim on the title of fastest Swiss woman ever in cyclocross. She told reporters on Sunday that her results this year are among the best of any Swiss woman in history.

“I’m the first Swiss woman to do even a top six in a World Cup,” she said, “so I’m already very happy with that.”

Taramarcaz reaching new heights after relocation

Twenty-five year old Julien Taramarcaz is no stranger to cyclocross success, having won silver at the 2005 junior world championships and his first elite Swiss championship last January. But it took a move to Belgium to bump him into the ranks of elite racers.

Taramarcaz told the Belgian website after his near-podium finish in Roubaix that he credited the move to the Flemish village of Rotselaar — not far from the homes of both Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) and Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) — with helping him elevate his racing to the highest level of his career. And, though Sunday’s race, in which Taramarcaz battled with Nys, Albert, and Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), currently the three top-ranked riders in the world, was by far his best, it was not his only exceptional showing this season.

Taramarcaz earned a top 10 in the Plzen World Cup round, then impressed fans with tenacious riding on tough courses on the Koppenberg and in Zonhoven, where he posted eighth- and sixth-place finishes.

The BMC rider’s impressive showing at the velodrome on Sunday elicited praise from Nys, who Taramarcaz tipped as one of his racing role models.

“We were all looking for a strong challenge from (Francis) Mourey, but, surprisingly, Taramarcaz was the toughest customer,” Nys told reporters. “I did not get the impression that he had much to learn from me still. He already gave a very good impression.”

Taramarcaz, if he was disappointed at all to miss out on his first World Cup podium, wasn’t showing it.

On Twitter, he wrote, “Hell of the North? Was more like the Paradise for me to be on the front with the three best riders in the world!!! Now I know that I can do it!”

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