France, Switzerland round out podium, USA 11th
By Andrew Hood
The Canadians like to call themselves the “powerhouse of world mountainbiking” and they’re not shy about talking about it. In Wednesday’s debutof the 2002 UCI World Mountain-bike Championships, the Canadians provedit was more than just hyperbole.
The defending team relay world champions led every lap except the firstand proved, at least in this event, they are on top of mountain biking’sslag heap. France finished second and the Swiss third while the U.S. teamwas 11th.
“This victory says a lot about the state of Canadian mountain bikingright now,” said Roland Green, the reigning world champion in the men’sindividual event. “We’re the strongest in the world right now and thisvictory shows that. This is a super-competitive race and the credit goesto the entire Canadian team.”
In the team relay – first won by the Spanish in its inaugural in 2000- each rider takes one lap that includes three men (a junior, an under-23 and elite) and one elite woman. Riders pass arm bands to the next riderat the end of each lap.
Ryder Hesjedal was first out of the gate for the Canucks, but Frenchrival Julien Absalon edged him by just 4 seconds. Green hammered his turnin the second lap, putting Canada in the lead for good by more than oneminute over the Swiss. Canada’s national junior champion Max Plaxton rode brilliantly in third position while former world champion Alison Sydorsealed the victory in the final lap.
“That’s our strategy,” Green said. “We want our strongest riders togo out first and hopefully get the lead. Then the other riders don’t haveto worry about making up time and it puts more pressure on the other teams.”
The French team, which included espoirs rider Absalon, junior Jean EudesDemaret, Laurent Leboucher and Cedric Ravanel, was fresh off winning theEuropean team relay title. Demaret suffered in the second lap and Francedropped from first to fifth, but Ravanel passed American, British and Swiss team members in the final lap to bounce the French into second at 53 seconds back.
“We knew if we were close on the final lap we had chances,” said Ravanel,whose hair was dyed France’s national color blue. “At first, the podiumdidn’t seem likely, but I was very strong on the climb. Two minutes beforethe finish I passed the Swiss rider, but I never saw Sydor.”
With victory imminent, Sydor began celebrating and eased to the racefences to high-five her teammates. She slipped on thick gravel and ratherunceremoniously fell just 20 feet short of the tape. Sydor was all toohappy to walk across the line to take the win.
“I had a dramatic start so I thought I should have a dramatic finish,”joked Sydor, who replaced Chrissy Redden from last year’s winning team.“When you’re going last, you want to have a solid ride and keep it together.”
At the beginning of the steep climbing section that opens up the difficult7.2-km course, Sydor went to change her front chain-ring but it got stuck.She was forced to jump off the bike on a slippery bridge, but didn’t fall.That was a good omen for Sydor.
“If I didn’t crash there, it was OK if I had to crawl across the finishline,” she said. “Coming into the finish, I wanted to celebrate with myteammates and they have long arms.”
The American team was hoping for a top-five finish and had to settlefor 11th. Starting first was elite rider Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, who camein seventh at 1:29 back. Former world junior champion Walker Ferguson rodesteady to keep the Americans in eighth. Junior hopeful Adam Swartzbaughrode brilliantly and lifted the Americans into fourth going into the finallap (see story below), but Susan Haywood lost time on the final lap.
The Swiss rode with solid consistency to take the bronze medal whileSweden and Italy, respectively, rounded out the top-five.
The Canadian team was enjoying their rainbow jerseys after the podiumpresentation. They better, because it’s the only time the rider will wearthem as the team relay is only held at the worlds and winners can weartheir rainbow jerseys in the respective events where they are won.
Swartzbaugh on the rise
The best ride by an American in Wednesday’s team relay was put downby Adam Swartzbaugh, an up and coming junior rider who’s hoping to surprisethe Europeans in Friday’s individual race.
Swartzbaugh, from Rockport, Maine, barnstormed through the difficultclimbing course in Kaprun to lift the Americans from 10th to fourth afterthe third lap.
“It’s a fun course, with a lot of climbing,” said Swartzbaugh, 17. “Ipassed quite a few on the climb, but racing in the relay, there’s a lotof pressure because you don’t want to let down your teammates.” Swartzbaughposted some solid results mid-summer to earn his second invite to the worldchampionships.
He finished 33rd last year at his debut in Vail. This year, the highschool senior thinks he can win.
“This is my first time racing out of the country. In Europe cyclingis everything, so over here if feels like the real thing,” he said. “Ithink my chances are good. I’m thinking I can finish in the top-three ifI have a good day. I really don’t know where I’ll stand up against theseguys because I really haven’t race against them a lot except at Vail lastyear.”
Swartzbaugh’s keenest competition likely won’t come from Europe, however.Canada’s national junior champion Max Plaxton and Australia’s Trent Lowewill also be bucking for the rainbow jersey.
Racing helps, especially when you win
Many of mountain biking’s top names – Bart Brentjens, Alison Dunlap,Christophe Sauser, Marga Fullana and Miguel Martinez to name a few – optednot to race the team relay. But for those who did insist racing Wednesdaywill give them an edge against their rivals come Sunday’s big races.
“Some riders believe they cannot concentrate on two events in one week,but I’m very proud to be part of this team,” said Thomas Frischknecht,a member of the third-place Swiss team. “The team relay is not as importantas the individual events, still it’s a medal and that doesn’t hurt at all.It’s good for the morale and I have something in the pocket going intoSunday.”
Defending world champion Roland Green said riding the course at racespeed will give him an advantage.
“You see the course at race pace. You’re descending at race speed, somethingyou cannot imitate in training,” Green said. “You have the lactate in yourbody and you’re going fast. I think it helps.”
Minnaar breaks shoulder, out of worlds
Downhiller Greg Minnaar broke his left collar bone in training Wednesdayand will not race in Saturday’s final. Minnaar, 20, fell near the top ofKaprun’s 3.2-km downhill course when his leg hit a tree and he fell hardon his shoulder.
According to a Global Racing team press release, fellow downhillersSteve Peat and Mick Hannah helped the South African get off the mountain.Minnaar, the defending overall World Cup champion and 2001 world downhillbronze medalist, was transported to a local hospital and was told it willtake about four weeks to heal.
Little Mig back, Dunlap gets stitches
Miguel Martinez, fresh off his debut in the Tour de France, will racein Sunday’s men’s cross-country final. Martinez hasn’t raced mountain bikesmuch since the spring and struggled at a Swiss Cup race two weeks ago.On Sunday, Martinez finished fourth in a long 105-km marathon race at nearbyZell am See.
Defending world champion Alison Dunlap took a tumble in training Tuesdayand received a few stitches in her lower right leg, according to U.S. nationalteam coach Charlie Livermore. In August, Dunlap cracked a bone in her wrist.Livermore said the incident won’t keep Dunlap from starting Sunday’s race.
Yer outta here!
A Greek rider was kicked out of the 2002 world mountain bike championshipsafter he was “tested unfit” to start. Andreas Markakis, 30, was the onlyone of 29 riders tested who failed blood tests carried out by the UCI “vampires”on Wednesday morning. In addition to the Greek squad, riders from the UnitedStates, Japan, Denmark, Cyprus and France were visited by the medical teamsassigned to test riders’ hematocrit levels.
What’s up Thursday at the worlds
There’s no racing Thursday, but plenty of pre-race action nonetheless.There’s downhill and cross-country course training from 8 to noon witha downhill seeding run at 12:30 p.m. Four-cross training is from 5:30 to7 p.m. The evening tops off with a race party in Kaprun until midnight.