By Andrew Hood
Two weeks ago, Filip Meirhaeghe (Specialized) was demoralized after national rival Roel Paulissen (Siemens-Cannondale) drubbed him in a Belgian national series race.
This time around, it was Meirhaeghe dusting the field, taking a dramatic victory in the opening round of the 2004 World Cup. The World Cup win the Meirhaeghe’s ninth of his career and puts the 33-year-old back on top in the international men’s cross-country field.
“I had some real problems before this race in my head and to win today is a nice surprise,” said Meirhaeghe, who won in 2 hours, 24 minutes on the six-lap, 48km course. “I didn’t know what to expect but once I was on course I felt good. This win is a big boost to my morale.”
An estimated 25,000 fans turned out to watch a large field of 187 riders tackle the undulating Casa de Campo course. Heavy rains Saturday gave way to partly sunny skies and made the course grippy enough after a slippery women’s race in the morning to let the men stretch their legs in the first major international competition of the season.
Two-time world champion Roland Green (Trek-Volkswagen) was among the early victims after his rear derailleur cable was stripped when he was caught up behind a pile-up in the first lap.
Ten riders were still together when Australian Sid Taberlay laid down a surprise attack midway through the second of six laps on the rollercoaster course that would be used if Madrid wins the 2012 Olympic bid.
But the 2004 Olympics are what’s are on everyone’s mind now and Meirhaeghe quickly marked the 24-year-old Australian.
“Sid attacked and everyone just watched him. I thought I would follow the move and no one else followed me, so I went hard and opened up a gap,” said Meirhaeghe, who won on a Specialized Epic full-suspension. “Once I got into the lead, I attacked again hard to open up a gap. Then it was up to them to catch me.”
Paulissen did his best to follow the world champion, but he could only pull with 20 seconds after the second lap. Meirhaeghe kept applying the screws and Paulissen settled with a satisfying second place at 1:18 back.
“I was surprised Filip was so strong,” said Paulissen, who along with Meirhaeghe already have their respective Olympic spots secure. “I could see Filip, but he was gaining 10-20 seconds on me at each lap.”
In Paulissen’s wake, Absalon made an effort to bridge out, but settled in with a four-man chase group after four laps that also included 2002 Madrid winner Bart Brentjens (T-Mobile), Lado Fumic (T-Mobile) and Christoph Sauser (Siemens-Cannondale).
“It was too bad I didn’t have the strength to follow Filip because that’s the tactic I used when I won here in 2002,” said Brentjens, who faded on the last lap to finish just off the podium in sixth at 1:55 back. “On a course like this, it’s better to be alone at the front because no one in the group was interested in working.”
Absalon finally made a jump in the final lap to come through third at 1:35 while Fumic and Sauser rounded out the podium after tying at 1:47 back. Taberlay couldn’t match the pace late, but hung on for a solid top 10 finish at ninth at 3:17 while perennial favorite Thomas Frischknecht (Swisspower) was 10th at 4:10.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (RLX Ralph Lauren) was the top American at 18th at 5:27 with Ryder Hesjedal (Subaru-Gary Fisher) was the top Canadian at 24th. Todd Wells (GT-Hyuandai) was 48th at 10:00 and Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-Volkswagen) was 92nd at 16:04. Other Americans included Michael Broderick at 130th at -1 lap and Adam Craig DNF.
Defending Olympic champion Miguel Martinez (Commencal-Oxbow) fought through a 51st start position to finish 22nd in his return to mountain bike racing after two years racing on the road.
Up next for the men is the second World Cup stop, coming next weekend on Meirhaeghe’s home turf at the classic Houffalize course. After taking the World Cup lead, Meirhaeghe was somewhat disappointed he wouldn’t be going for the win donning his world champion’s rainbow jersey.
Not to worry, Filip, team officials were already making plans to have a customized World Cup leader’s blue jersey replete with rainbow stripes just in time for the race.
It’s Dahle that and more
Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) picked up where she left off last season and tore away from the field to win the 2004 World Cup opener Sunday in Madrid.
Whether she’ll sweep the World Cup like she did last year remains to be seen, but her victory on the rollercoaster in Madrid’s Casa de Campo park left little doubt the Norwegian didn’t let down her guard in the off-season.
“It’s always a surprise to win a World Cup, but perhaps even more so today because I had a bad start and you never know how everyone is racing in the bigger races,” said Dahle, who won in 1 hour, 34 minutes, 47 seconds. “I felt good on the climbs, but on this course there’s so much stopping and accelerating. I was surprised I got away when I did.”
The 31-year-old Norwegian overcame a slipped chain early on to open a 15-second gap midway through the first lap. A four-rider chase group could do nothing to bring back the 2002 world champion and Dahle won by a comfortable 1:41 gap over teammate Irina Kalentieva.
Rain Saturday softened up the course, making the four-lap test sloppy in some of the downhill sections. But winds and partly sunny skies cleaned up the course to give the women a relatively clean ride.
Kalentieiva surged ahead in the third lap and rode alone into second place to match her World Cup career-best while three riders – Ivonne Kraft (Ghost), Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) and Annabella Stropparo (Italian National) were left to fight for the podium. Kraft nudged ahead of Sydor in the final lap to take third.
“It was a hard race and Gunn-Rita just rode away from us,” Sydor said. “It’s been a good spring and I’m been pleased with how things have been going. There’s room for improvement, but I’m feeling good.”
Madrid marked the World Cup comeback for two-time Olympic champion Paolo Pezzo (Gatorade-Specialized). After winning in Sydney, Pezzo left racing to have a child, but the chance for a third gold medal proved too much.
Pezzo admitted she didn’t quite have the leg speed to stay with the fastest, but rode steady to come through sixth at 3:53 back.
“I felt very good. I’m happy with how I raced today because it’s been four years since I’ve raced a World Cup,” Pezzo said. “I want to return to the Olympics, but I don’t know if I will be able to win again. I will try.”
Two-time world champion Marga Fullana (Orbea) was part of an early five-rider chase group but crashed on a tricky up and down section, landing hard on head in the second lap. Fullana, a winner here in 2002, rode on with mud covering her helmet but pulled out once she came back through the start-finish area and went to a local hospital for check-ups.
It was also a World Cup comeback for Alison Dunlap (Luna), who was racing at the World Cup level for the first time since Fort William last year. Dunlap overcame a 40th start position to finish a solid eighth at 4:36 as the top American.
“The start position was a disadvantage. I was pretty winded in the first lap, but it was a clean race for me despite the start position, no crashes, no mechanicals,” Dunlap said. “I felt strong, I’m happy with how I rode. Next week I’ll be in the front line.”
Mary McConneloug (Seven) was 14th at 6:17, while Susan Haywood (Trek-Volkswagen) finished 15th at 6:58 back despite being sick earlier in the week. World champion Sabine Spitz (Fusion) was also sick and did not start.