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NORBA finals: What’s at stake

After two straight years at the East Coast mountain-biking hotbed of Mount Snow, Vermont, the NORBA National Championship Series has come west for its series finale. The locale is Durango, Colorado, no stranger to big-time racing itself. The southwestern tourist town was the site of the first UCI-sanctioned world championships back in 1990, and has played host to both World Cup and NORBA stops over the years. It’s also the site of the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Pro racing begins Friday with qualifying for the mountain cross. The men’s and women’s cross country finals are Saturday

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

Hesjedal is the men's XC leader.

Hesjedal is the men’s XC leader.

Photo: Mark Dawson

After two straight years at the East Coast mountain-biking hotbed of Mount Snow, Vermont, the NORBA National Championship Series has come west for its series finale. The locale is Durango, Colorado, no stranger to big-time racing itself. The southwestern tourist town was the site of the first UCI-sanctioned world championships back in 1990, and has played host to both World Cup and NORBA stops over the years. It’s also the site of the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

Pro racing begins Friday with qualifying for the mountain cross. The men’s and women’s cross country finals are Saturday morning at 10:30. Mountain cross finals follow at 4:30. Sunday kicks off with the women’s short track at 12:30 p.m. The men follow at 1 p.m., with the pro downhill closing the weekend starting at 2 p.m.

Besides the move west, the big change this year will be the fact that all four disciplines will be contested 25 minutes north of town at Durango Mountain Resort (At last year’s NORBA event only the downhill was run at the ski area). That means the endurance gang will have to perform at the oxygen-thin altitude of 8793 feet. On an up note, there’s been afternoon rain in Durango all week, which should help keep the dust at a tolerable level.

As for the overall and national titles on the line, only one of 16 is wrapped up (Jill Kintner is the national mountain cross champ). Of the other 15, the men’s downhill is the tightest, with Aussie Chris Kovarik just 12 points ahead of Greg Minnaar.

Also worth noting is the fact that Americans have reemerged as serious players in their own series. Unlike 2002 when only two of the eight overall titles went to U.S. riders, at least five Americans have legitimate shots at grabbing overall crowns — good news when it comes to their pocket books. After racing the first four stops for no prize money, NORBA has hooked up with Florida-based Mountain Bike TV, which ponied up $16,000 ($2000 for each series winner).

Below are breakdowns for all 16 titles on the line this weekend, and our picks of who the winners will be. Check back to VeloNews.com starting Saturday afternoon for complete race reports, photos and results.

Green was slowed in the early season, but has been hot lately.

Green was slowed in the early season, but has been hot lately.

Photo: Mark Dawson

MEN’S CROSS COUNTRY
Overall title:
Bolstered by a pair of wins to open the NCS season, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal owns a solid 68-point lead over American Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, with Seamus McGrath another 30 points back in third. Barring a mechanical or major physical meltdown, Hesjedal should have little problem holding his lead. All he needs to do to win the title is finish in the top seven, which shouldn’t be a problem considering he’s only missed the top five once in the last two years.

U.S. title: Just like the overall, the national crown is all but locked up. Horgan-Kobelski leads Jeremiah Bishop by 76 points, meaning as long as JHK finishes in the top nine, he’ll capture his second straight stars and stripes jersey.

VeloNews pick: Tab Hesjedal and Horgan-Kobelski for the series titles, but give the race win to Roland Green. If Green does win in Durango, it’ll be his 12th career NORBA cross-country victory, putting him just one win behind all-time leader John Tomac.

WOMEN’S CROSS COUNTRY
Overall title:
Like the men, the gap between first and second is 68 points, with Argentina’s Jimena Florit leading Canadian Chrissy Redden. Florit has only won once on the NORBA circuit this year, but she’s coming off a gold-medal performance at the Pan American Games last weekend. Staying in the top seven shouldn’t be a problem. U.S. title: When Alison Dunlap went down with a separated shoulder it opened the door for a host of American women. The one that’s stepped farthest through is Mary McConneloug, who grabbed her first career NORBA win at the Mount Snow cross country. Now McConneloug has a chance to cap her breakout season, as she enters the final race with a 50-point lead over Sue Haywood. If Haywood wins, McConneloug has to make the top four. If Haywood finishes second, McConneloug has to stay in the top eight. Anything beyond that would require McConneloug to have an awful day.

VeloNews pick: Florit looks solid for her second straight overall title, and the same goes for McConneloug and the U.S. crown. As for the race, let’s go with a dramatic ending and give McConneloug an emphatic conclusion to her surprising season.

MEN’S SHORT TRACK
Overall title:
The last time an American man was in serious contention for a NORBA endurance title, the world’s eyes were focused on the Sydney Olympics. The year was 2000 and Steve Larsen was using his national team snub as motivation to run off three straight NCS wins and grab the overall title. Now, after being the butt of many a cross-country joke, the U.S. men’s talent pool is enjoying a modest revival behind current short-track series leader Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski. The Colorado native has a 46-point lead over Canadian Seamus McGrath, with Aussie Paul Rowney a distant third.

If JHK stays in the top three, the series title is his, but anything worse than that and things could get interesting really fast. The short track is mountain-bike racing’s biggest crapshoot, and it’s a place where trade team (and maybe even national team) tactics can come into play. This may well be the most exciting 20 minutes of the weekend.

U.S. title: A year ago this title epitomized the dismal state of U.S. mountain biking, after Todd Wells won the crown by finishing eighth in the series. Things are much brighter the time around with Horgan-Kobelski leading the overall and U.S. rider standings. Wells is a distant 178 points behind, meaning he’d have to finish second or better and hope Horgan-Kobelski DNF’d. VeloNews pick: The U.S. title is a done deal, with Horgan-Kobelski all but assured the crown. As for the overall, it’s sure to be interesting, but for the sake of national pride the pick is Horgan-Kobelski in a squeaker. Give the race win to Rowney in what has been the most wide-open discipline of the 2003 season.

WOMEN’S SHORT TRACK
Overall title:
A year ago the women’s short track series was a one-rider affair, with American Alison Dunlap taking four of five races. This time around it’s been as wide open as the American West, with four winners in four races. Trek-VW’s Sue Haywood was the first of those winners, and comes into the finals sitting atop the overall standings, with a 44-point lead over Czech rider Katerina Hanusova. Canadian Chrissy Redden is 54 points back of Haywood in third.

U.S. title: Just like the men’s national title chase, this one is all but over, as Haywood leads Mary McConneloug by 114 points. If Haywood holds on, it will be her second short track national title.

Haywood is the short track leader.

Haywood is the short track leader.

Photo: VeloNews file photo

VeloNews pick: Forget about the battle for the stars and stripes; it’s over. The overall could be close, though, with all of the top three capable of winning, and all of them having fast teammates that could lend a hand with attacking and/or blocking. Haywood has the fastest of those teammates in Alison Sydor, so give the American the overall with Jimena Florit crashing through for the race win.

MEN’S DOWNHILL
Overall title:
If you can only watch one race this weekend, this is the one. Not only is the Durango downhill one of the best around (read BIG drops), the chase for the overall is tighter than Ebenezer Scrooge. On top of the standings, just as he’s been the last two years at this point, is Chris Kovarik. But the Aussie has two big factors going against him: His lead is a scant 12 points over South African Greg Minnaar, and the last two times Kovarik came into the finals with a lead he choked worse than Greg Norman at the ’96 Master’s, each time giving the title away to Kiwi John Kirkcaldie.

Kirkcaldie’s not in the hunt this year, but besides Minnaar, Aussies Sam Hill (38 points behind Kovarik), Joel Panozzo (54) and Nathan Rennie (78) all still have shots at the title. It’s likely this one won’t be decided until the last rider comes down the hill.

U.S. title: In a near repeat of 2002, the chase for the men’s U.S. downhill title is little more than a junior varsity warm-up for the main event. Leading the way in eighth place overall is Eric Carter, who is the defending U.S. champ and opened the 2003 season with a win. Carter hasn’t been able to follow up his Big Bear success, though, and that’s kept Gary Houseman (34 points behind Carter) and Rich Houseman (48) in the hunt.

VeloNews pick: While Minnaar, Hill, Panozzo and Rennie all have tons of talent; it’s Kovarik who is the best when he’s at his best. Look for the change of venue (Kovarik’s two finals implosions occurred at Mount Snow) to be the difference. He won in Durango last year and he’ll do it again this year, and finally win the overall title. As for the U.S. men, none of them will get into the top five and there’s not enough points at stake further down for Carter to loose his lead.

WOMEN’S DOWNHILL
Overall title:
In a year full of surprises, the fact that Marla Streb has a good shot at winning the series crown has to rank at the top of the list. Nothing against the 38-year-old American, but with top flight World Cuppers Tracy Moseley, Fionn Griffiths and Sabrina Jonnier contesting the NORBA series, you figured 2003 would be a repeat of last year when the best the U.S. had to offer was Lisa Sher in third overall. Give Streb credit, though, she’s already won twice this year. The chase group behind her numbers three, with Griffiths at 46, Moseley at 68 and Mio Suemasa 88 points behind.

U.S. title: While Streb’s lead is tenuous in the overall, her 140-point cushion over Melissa Buhl will be tough to blow.

VeloNews pick: Throughout her career, Streb has had a reputation for riding right on the edge of control. If she holds it together she can win, but just as often she crosses the line and ends up in the dirt. The course at Durango is tough and long, providing many chances for disaster. On a hunch, the call is trouble for Streb, meaning an overall crown for Griffiths. Streb will hang on to the U.S. crown, though, with Tracy Moseley getting the race win.

MEN’S MOUNTAIN CROSS
Overall title:
Even without Brian Lopes around for most of the season, men’s gated racing has remained one of the few domains where Americans dominate. Coming into Durango, Eric Carter has already locked up the World Cup crown and he sits atop the NCS standings, 45 points ahead of countryman Mike King. Chris Kovarik is a distant third, 125 points behind.

U.S. title: It’s King versus Carter, in an old school battle.

Carter has his sights on the mountain cross.

Carter has his sights on the mountain cross.

Photo: VeloNews file photo

VeloNews pick: Assuming both riders make the finals, which is a pretty safe bet, this could be the most dramatic half minute of the weekend. If King wins, Carter has to finish second Let’s call it a drag race to the finish, with King nipping his fellow Southern Californian for the race win, but Carter grabbing the U.S. title and the overall crown by holding on for second.

WOMEN’S MOUNTAIN CROSS
Overall title:
After a blazing start to the season (two straight NORBA wins), newcomer Jill Kintner has cooled off a bit, missing the top three at the last two NCS stops. But bolstered by similar inconsistency from her primary competitors, the American remains atop the overall standings, 60 points ahead of Sabrina Jonnier and 70 up on Katrina Miller.

U.S. title: This is the only title that is officially over, with Kintner owning an insurmountable 230-point lead over last year’s national champ, Melissa Buhl.

VeloNews pick: Jonnier started the year dinged up, but has come back strong, posting two-straight NORBA wins. Give her the race win in Durango, with Miller second and Kintner third, meaning the Frenchwoman overtakes the American by five points for the overall crown.

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