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By Fred Dreier
The world’s best cross-country mountain bike racers will break out the hardtails this weekend for the fourth round of the UCI World Cup, held Sunday in Madrid, Spain. The dusty course spins an eight-kilometer circuit through an urban park in the Spanish capital, and includes plenty of fast hardpack and flat pedaling sections. Speeds on the track are high — the Madrid course lacks serious technical obstacles, but includes a plethora of punchy climbs, loose corners and gravel.
In 2008, beneath a scorching sun, Frenchman Julien Absalon (Orbea) and Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå (Multivan-Merida) escaped with victories in Madrid. Absalon out gunned Spanish favorite Jose Hermida (Multivan-Merida) to take the win by just 12 seconds, while Dahle-Flesjå out sprinted Canadian Marie-Héléne Prémont after the two opened up a sizable gap on the rest of the women’s field.
Dahle Flesjå will not be in Madrid. The 2004 Olympic champion and her husband Kenneth welcomed their first child, Bjomar, in mid March. Dahle Flesjå will miss much of the 2009 season.
Absalon is back, and is in the driver’s seat of the men’s World Cup standings. The Frenchman won the second and third rounds of the series, and owns a 160-point lead over Wolfram Kurchat (Ergon-Topeak) in the men’s World Cup standings.
Kurchat, a three-time German national champion, could give Absalon a serious challenge in Madrid. The German defeated the Frenchman this past weekend at the third round of the German Bundesliga-MTB national cross-country series, held in Heubach, Germany. Kurchat, who had been playing catch-up to Absalon on the descents, caught and dropped Absalon on the course’s sustained climb and put more than a minute into the Frenchman by the line.
Kurchat’s big engine, matched with Madrid’s non-technical course, could help the German take his first-ever World Cup win.
Other riders who could challenge for the win include Hermida and his teammate Ralph Naf; Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud (Massi); Specialized teammates Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser.
North American riders Todd Wells (Specialized), Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Sam Schultz (both Subaru-Gary Fisher), Michael Broderick (Kenda-Seven-NoTubes) and Adam Craig (Giant) will also look for top placing.
Spanish hero Margarita Fullana (Massi), who won the May 3 World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium, comes into the Madrid race as the favorite. Fullana, the reigning world champ, currently leads the women’s World Cup series with 600 points, 70 points up on Elisabeth Osl (Central-Ghost) of Austria.
In Houffalize it was Catherine Pendrel (Luna) who provided Fullana a serious challenge, and the Canadian rider will look to improve on her second-place finish in Madrid. While the majority of her fellow North Americans returned home during the two-week gap between Houffalize and Madrid, Pendrel stayed and raced in Europe, and won Poland’s Jelenia Gora Trophy race on May 10.
American Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-NoTubes) finished fourth at the Polish race, and will also be in Madrid looking to improve on her fifth-place finish at the World Cup opener in Pietermartizburg, South Africa.
Other North Americans to watch include Canadian Emily Batty (Trek Bicycle Store), who currently leads the World Cup Under-23 standings, Georgia Gould (Luna), Heather Irmiger and Willow Koerber (both Subaru-Gary Fisher), Prémont and Lea Davison (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain).