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Greg Minnaar, Rachel Atherton wrap up MTB worlds with wins

Alexandra Engen and Paul van der Ploeg take the eliminator titles

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The UCI Mountain Bike World Championships wrapped up on Sunday in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, with the host nation’s Greg Minnaar and Rachel Atherton of Great Britain winning the downhill titles.

In the cross country eliminator, meanwhile, Sweden’s Alexandra Engen successfully defended her title in the women’s race, while Paul van der Ploeg gave Australia its first title of the championships in the men’s contest.

The fastest four qualifiers for the women’s eliminator made it to the medals round, but the real battle for gold was between Engen and Swiss rival Jolanda Neff. Neff got off the start line first in the final, but Engen squeezed by before the race entered a singletrack section and never relinquished the lead. Neff kept the pressure on, but had to settle for silver, to go with the gold she won in the under-23 women’s cross-country on Friday. Linda Indergand of Switzerland took the bronze.

“This is such a marvelous moment, I am enjoying it right now,” said Engen. “This is such a really good track. You have to have a powerful start, but you have to be technical to be able to keep that lead, and then you have the power climb where you have to punch. She (Jolanda) is a really good sprinter and I know that to be able to win over these girls you have to have a perfect day, and I had one.”

The men’s competition saw none of the top qualifiers make the medal round, with van der Ploeg joined by World Cup series leader Daniel Federspiel (Austria), Andres Soto (Argentina) and Elia Silvestri (Italy).

Federspiel, one of the fastest starters in the sport, took the lead in the final start, but van der Ploeg pulled off an amazing dive into the first corner to overtake the Austrian. He immediately opened a gap and was never seriously challenged thereafter. Federspiel hung on for second, with Soto claiming the bronze.

“It’s unbelievable, I can’t believe what just happened. It’s a dream come true.” said van der Ploeg. “I found a sneaky inside line in the semifinals and thought, ‘Well, if it worked once, it would probably work again.’ I went from second or third to first and then it was just about riding smooth and trying to keep my cool.”

In the downhill, Australia’s Tracey Hannah — only seven weeks after breaking a clavicle — set a time that would hold up until the final two riders came down.

Emmeline Ragot of France, the two-time world champion, finally dislodged Hannah from the top spot with the first sub-4:40 time, but Atherton was still to come, and the British rider shot through the first time check 1.7 seconds ahead, and continued to build her lead, finishing 8.632 seconds in front of Ragot. Hannah claimed the bronze.

“That was wild,” said Atherton. “On the way down I was just … I have no idea how fast I was going. I had to dig deep. It was so painful.

“This title has been a long time coming. I won my first in 2008 and it seems like ever since then I’ve missed world champs through injury or had a big stack, and I was starting to wonder if I would ever win again. I wanted the title, I wanted the stripes again.”

Australia’s Jared Graves, the 2009 four-cross world champion, came close to pulling off a stunning upset from 24th in the start order, when he flew through the finish with a time of 4:01, riding an enduro-style bike rather than a downhill bike.

He spent an hour in the hot seat, until countryman Mick Hannah bumped him into second place by three seconds. Minnaar, third from last to start, was was ahead by a second at the first split, behind eight-tenths of a second at the next split, and finally recovering at the end to finish a mere 0.396 second in front of Hannah, riding on a slow leaking rear tire.

That was it — Steve Smith (Canada) crashed out of contention on the first corner, while Gee Atherton (Great Britain), the World Cup leader, finished seventh.

“The puncture … I came through that last rock section as hard as I could and went slightly off line and got a leak,” said Minnaar. “It only went down on that last jump. So it didn’t slow me down thankfully.”

“It feels surreal [winning at home]. The whole of South Africa was here backing me for sure. Everyone from the guys who drove us to the top, the marshals, everyone was cheering me on.”