By Rob Jones
The 2006 World Cup mountain-bike race season gets underway this weekend on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Located just off the coast of Venezuela, Curaçao is known primarily for tourism (it is a regular cruise ship stop), oil (a large refinery dominates the main town of Willemstad) and, for this weekend, mountain biking.
The World Cup circus has descended on the island, with 114 men and 52 women scheduled to enter the cross-country race Saturday. All of the world’s top riders have made the trip, led by world champions Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan-Merida) and Julien Absalon (Bianchi), and defending World Cup champion Christoph Sauser, who will be racing internationally for the first time in Specialized colors.
The riders face a 6.8-kilometer circuit, which incorporates the beach and the surrounding rocky terrain. The expectation is that the men will do seven laps and the women will complete five. Both will also do a start loop, which Liam Killeen (Specialized) said may split the field up early. “It is pretty tight in one section, so if someone makes a mistake you could see the field split up into small groups pretty much right away.”
The course doesn’t offer much in the way of a climb, but lots of tight, twisty turns, loose gravel and thorns (which have caused a number of punctures in training) will make it a tactical race. The riders seem to be evenly split between using hardtails and suspension.
“There aren’t many places to pass,” comments Sauser. “If you don’t get a good start you could be spending a lot of time and energy trying to get back up to the front. It is easy to make a mistake here with all the turns, especially when you are going fast.”
The heat and humidity are also expected to have a huge impact, with most of the riders coming from colder climes, and already wilting in the 90-degree heat. Some riders that have a slight advantage in this area, having just come from Melbourne and the Commonwealth Games, are Killeen, Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects), Seamus McGrath (Canadian National), Kiara Bisaro (Canadian National), Sid Taberlay and Kashi Leuchs (Cannondale). However, even these riders are commenting that heat will be the primary factor in the race. Many have said that they would prefer to race in Curaçao at the end of the season rather than the beginning, concerned about the travel and the sudden temperature change.
On his Web site, American Todd Wells said the course was short, but the podium was one for the books: “[The course] is short, less then a 20-minute lap. Not much climbing and pretty fun. There is quite a bit of singletrack per lap and it will be pretty hard to pass, I think. The course goes through the beach where people are laying out in chairs, topless. The podium is set up in floating in the water just off the beach. It has to be the coolest podium I’ve ever seen.”
A number of riders are coming off sickness. Sabine Spitz (Specialized) had a gastrointestinal flu last week. “I’m fine now,” she said, “but I’ve had no intensity since last week. So I am here just hoping to do okay and get a good start position for Madrid.”
Killeen was sick for a couple of days after the Commonwealth Games, but says he is recovered. Likewise, Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) is still suffering the effects of whatever robbed him of energy at the Commonwealth Games.
Former world champion Filip Meirhaeghe is in Curaço, in his first World Cup mountain-bike race since his suspension for doping in 2004. Meirhaeghe has been racing on the road successfully this year, but has not competed against his mountain bike peers.
Check www.velonews.com on Saturday for a race report, results and photos.