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In a replay of the 2009 World Mountain Bike Championships, Nino Schurter out-sprinted perennial contender Julien Absalon to win the first World Cup XC race of the season in England.
Reigning U-23 World Champ Burry Stander (Specialized Factory Racing), who won the elite cross-country race at the Sea Otter Classic last weekend, finished third. The top-placed American was Todd Wells (Specialized Factory Racing) at 19th. Canada’s Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Moutain) finished 28th, Subaru-Gary Fisher rider Sam Schultz was 30th, with teammate Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski 39th. Michael Broderick (Kenda-Seven) was 106th.
With 183 riders starting in the first race of the UCI’s 20th World Cup season, it was Swiss riders who went out on lap one, with Lukas Fluckinger (Trek World Racing) and Ralph Naef (Scott-SwissPower) at the head of proceedings. French double Olympic champion Absalon (Orbea) was already in third and Marco Fontana (Cannondale Factory Racing) of Italy fourth as the field crossed the line in a solid mass.
On the first lap Naef was up front, just ahead of Absalon with world champion Schurter (Scott-SwissPower) third. A seven-rider group led over the line and out onto lap two, headed by Naef, Absalon and Schurter. They were accompanied by Spain’s Ivan Alvarez Guitierrez, Fontana, South Africa’s Stander and France’s Stephane Tempier. The war of attrition that is World Cup racing had really begun.
The lead group had morphed several times, but Naef, Absalon and Schurter were constantly at the front and the first 11 riders were within four seconds of the leader for most of the second lap.
Lap three began with Stander suddenly moving to the front, opening up gaps in the line of riders behind him. It marked the start of a series of attacks through the lap as the process of attrition continued, whittling the lead group down to seven.
On lap four the leader was Stander, with Absalon, Schurter, Fontana, Ivan Alvarez Guiterrez and Spamiard Ruben Ruzafa Cueto all together, with Naef and Fluckinger five seconds back.
The first half of that lap saw little change at the front, but a big climb saw a major sort-out as Stander, Absalon and Schurter really moved the pace up a level.
Stander, Absalon and Schurter had a 24-second gap back to Fluckinger, Fontana, Alvarez Guiterrez, Naef and Ruzafa Cueto who looked ragged as they tried to organize themselves for a chase.
Within the lead trio, attack followed attack throughout the penultimate lap with Stander doing a lot of the work at the front and looking very aggressive. However, he suddenly began to look uncomfortable, and going out onto the last lap he blew badly, leaving Absalon and Schurter to blast past the South African.
All eyes now turned to the finish straight and Absalon appeared first but with the Swiss rider right on his wheel. They both wound up an impressive sprint as they charged up the slight hill into a headwind, before Schurter punched the air as he passed the Frenchman in the final few yards to claim the win. It was a carbon copy of his win in last year’s World Championships.
Schurter was naturally pleased with the ride and he modestly admitted he had claimed the win in the only way he felt he could.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I felt really bad on the last two laps, but it was a nice finish. I felt Absalon was stronger than me and the only chance was to beat him on a sprint to the finish line as I’m a better sprinter than him.”
Stander was third after an aggressive ride from the World Under-23 champion. A final lap charge saw Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy claim fourth place, having been ninth at the bell. Ralph Naef recovered from a bad mid-race to claim fifth, a reward for the work he did at the front in the opening lap and a half. Germany’s Manuel Fumic was another strong finisher, claiming sixth, having moved up four places in the last couple of laps.