By Andrew Hood
Gunn-Rita Dahle almost didn’t start the world championships after coming down with a cold following her gold medal performance in Athens, but she’s glad she did.
The Norwegian shook off a week in bed and post-Olympic letdown to become the first woman mountain biker to pull off the world title-Olympic champion double. And now she’s a week away from sewing up the World Cup and delivering an unbeatable triple.
“Today was a matter of getting rhythm and being very careful with bike,” said Dahle, who covered the 30km course in 2 hours, 2 minutes, 12 seconds. “I felt good from the start and did my own kind of race. I had a great day on the bike and it’s unbelievable becoming world champion again.”
Overnight and morning showers made the steep climbs and descents on the 6km Les Gets course almost unrideable. Rain let up during the race, but many of the steeper sections forced the 73 starting riders off their bikes.
Dahle held off Polish sensation Maja Wloszczowska (2nd at 1:06) and perennial podium threat Alison Sydor (3rd at 1:45) to win her second rainbow jersey in three years. The stubborn Polish rider stayed close to Dahle, who lost her rear brake on the final lap after her cables snapped.
“I’m lucky the race wasn’t six laps because on the final descent I went flying into the barriers because I couldn’t stop,” said Dahle, who was once again cheered by her Viking posse. “Winning today was really unbelievable. My legs and sensations were a lot better than a week ago, I would be happy just to be on the podium.”
A determined Alison Dunlap powered out of the second start row on the first climb to move into the front, but no lover of wet, soggy weather, the 2001 world champion struggled on the descents. Dunlap fought through the inclement conditions to finish seventh at 6:44 back as the top American.
“I had a great start, but I struggled in that first downhill section. That’s where the others pulled away. They’re better than me in that kind of stuff,” said Dunlap. “The course was so sloppy, the first lap we had to push up most of the climbs and walked down some of the downhills. I never fell but had lots of slips when I had to pull out of the pedals. Nothing major. I’m really happy with the ride. I felt strong, I felt good, that’s want I wanted here. I’m satisfied.”
Dahle and Wloszczowska rode together at the front in the first lap, but the experienced Norwegian slowly pulled away from the 20-year-old Pole. Dahle extended her lead to 1:03 up the second passage up a punishing climb late in each lap and never wavered.
Wloszczowska, who lost the 2001 junior world title to Nicole Cooke after taking a wrong turn near the finish line, displayed nerve beyond her years after holding off Sydor when the Canadian caught her in the fourth lap.
“Alison caught me on the descent and I was very worried at first,” she said. “I decided to attack at beginning of the final lap because I knew I was stronger in the climbs. I was afraid in the today because I hate the rain and I usually have problems in the downhill. After the first lap I felt good and I could challenge for the podium.”
Sydor – who was contemplating retirement after finishing a disappointing fourth in Athens – battled on to hold off the fast-charging Marie-Helene Premont to earn her ninth world champion medal in 14 starts.
“Maja went harder on the start of the final climb and I just couldn’t stay there, especially on a day like today where you’re fighting so hard to get through the mud,” said Sydor, who’s finished fifth or better in every worlds she’s started. “I’m glad I was able to bounce back from the disappointment a two weeks and finish on the podium.”
Behind the leading trio there was quite a battle going on for the top 10. Barbara Blatter started fast but faded to finish 10th while defending champion Sabine Spitz hung in fourth place until Russian Irina Kalentieva passed her in the fourth lap.
But the rider on a mission was Premont, who overcame a slipped chain and derailleur problems in the first lap to move up from 21st to eighth in the second lap and eventually passing Spitz and Kalentieva to finish fourth.
“I had great form today, but I was unlucky and had some mechanical problems early in the race,” she said after finishing fourth at 4:21 back. “Sabine and I were fighting but she fell on the descent and I was able to pass her.”
The mud spelled troubles for many riders. Two-time world champion Paolo Pezzo did not finish, leaving many wondering if she’ll be back to international competition again. American Olympic Mary McConneloug finished 16th at 12:50 slower while Kelli Emmett was 24th and Dara Marks at 29th.
The rain and mud were just fine for Dahle, who won in similar conditions in Kaprun two years ago.
2004 cross-country elite women’s world championship
1. Gunn-Rita Dahle (Nor), 30km in 2 hours, 2 minutes, 12 seconds
2. Maja Wloszczowska (Pol) at 1:06
3. Alison Sydor (Can) at 1:45
4. Marie-Helene Premont (Can) at 4:21
5. Sabine Spitz (Ger) at 4:33
6. Irina Kalentieva (Rus) at 5:07
7. Alison Dunlap (USA) at 6:44
8. Nina Gohl (Ger) at 8:29
9. Ivonne Kraft (Ger) at 8:59
10. Barbara Blatter (Swi) at 9:05
Other North Americans
14. Kiara Bisaro (Can) at 10:39
16. Mary McConneloug (USA) at 12:50
24. Kelli Emmett (USA) at 18:06
25. Chrissy Redden (Can) at 18:09
29. Dara Marks (USA) at 19:52
Minus 1 lap: Trish Sinclair (Can), Catherine Pendrel (Can), Gretchen Reeves (USA), Karen De Wolfe (Can); Minus 2 laps: Laura Lorenza (Mex)