This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Julie Bresset (France) defended her world championship title in the elite women's cross country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on Saturday afternoon. Maja Wloszczowska (Poland) finished second ahead of Esther Süss (Switzerland) in third.
Much of the race for the gold was a two-woman battle between Bresset and Wloszczowska. It came down to the very last lap, but Bresset controlled the race perfectly and rode in for the win just five seconds ahead of Wloszczowska.
"It's amazing to win today because it was a hard race," said Bresset. "My target was to do the top five, but to get first today was great. I had good preparation and felt good here all week. It was a good race, and it was a pleasure to race this track with Maja."
Crashes influenced the outcome of the race for several riders, including Tanja Zakelj (Slovenia), who crashed herself out of contention in the Corkscrew while riding with the leaders. Eva Lechner (Italy) also went down hard early in the race in the infamous Shaka's Playground section and dropped out of medal contention.
Katrin Leumann (Switzerland) led the women's field at the start, just ahead of Eva Lechner (Italy) and Alexandra Engen (Sweden). Tucked in behind them were Zakelj, Wloszczowska, Kathrin Stirnemann (Switzerland) and Bresset.
By the end of the first lap Bresset had moved up to the front, but as the defending champion she was marked by Lechner, Wloszczowska and Zakelj. Fresh off her Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup victory, Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) was just behind them, followed by Engen.
On lap 2, one of the favorites, Lechner, who had also helped her Italian team to a relay gold earlier in the week, crashed hard in Shaka's Playground, a steep downhill technical section with logs and lost many places.
"On lap 2, I think I just missed the right line, and I went over my handlebars," Lechner told Cyclingnews. "At first I didn't think I could keep going, but then I just survived though I was more in the back. It's too bad, I had good legs today."
Wloszczowska said, "I was in front of Eva, so I didn't see her go down. I figured she must have crashed seriously to not be in the front group any more. That's the beauty and the not-so-beautiful part of this sport."
That left three women dominating at the front: Bresset, Wloszczowska and Zakelj.
Coming through the Corkscrew steep downhill section near the end of lap 3, Zakelj crashed so hard that it took her about 10 seconds to get up and get going and another five seconds to get back on her bike. She lost several places and was back to sixth place. Though she shook her crash off and continued on to finish the race, her medal chances had evaporated in that instant.
"I felt really good until I made a mistake and crashed," Zakelj told Cyclingnews. "It was a bad crash. It put me out of my rhythm, and I lost contact with the lead group. From then on, it was just racing at my pace."
For the last three of six total laps on the bright, sunny, cool South African winter day, Bresset and Wloszczowska would battle each other. In the past year the two have both suffered injuries that have kept them out of competition for periods of time: Bresset fractured her collarbone earlier this season while Wloszczowska broke two bones in her leg and tore most ligaments in her ankle three weeks before the Olympic Games last year. Therefore, the two had not raced each other frequently in the past year, especially when both were in top form. Who would be stronger on the day was a real question mark.
About 30 seconds behind the two leaders, Süss and former world champion Irina Kalentieva (Russian Federation) competed for the bronze medal, trading leads several times.
Although Bresset led much of the race, on the penultimate lap Wloszczowska moved around her on the climb just before the Treehouse section so she could enter the rock garden first. She appeared to be testing her options for the final lap.
"I had just wanted to save my energy for the last lap. If I could follow her, I preferred to be in the second spot for awhile," said Wloszczowska.
In that same rock garden, Süss got around Kalentieva and put seven seconds on her, enough to split the two for good.
With a little less than one lap to go, Bresset moved back in front of Wloszczowska. The Olympic champion kept standing up and pushing the pedals on the climbs to keep Wloszczowska from going around. Both knew that it was likely that whoever led going through the final downhills and technical sections would win, barring any mistakes.
"It was my strategy to keep at the head of the race and be first in the technical sections," said Bresset. "The last lap, I knew I had to be first into the rock garden. Then it was super-fast down to the finish line. With the rain yesterday, the track was harder-packed."
"It was important to be in the first position in the downhill. I knew the finish of the race was at the top before the rock garden. I tried to pass Julie there, but she was unbelievably strong there," said Wloszczowska.
The pressure was on and Wloszczowska matched Bresset's every pedal stroke, but couldn't get around her. On the final time down the Treehouse, Bresset appeared to be riding better technically and got a very slight gap on Wloszczowska.
The French woman was able to hold her off until the end, although Wloszczowska put up a good fight and never gave up. The Polish woman was delighted with the silver medal.
"I tried to keep my speed right to the finish, but I'm happy about the silver after all. I wasn't thinking about my injury during the race, but there for awhile I thought that I might not be able to come back to cycling because the injury was serious. It took half a year to be able to move my foot again."
Süss rolled in for third at 1:06. Kalentieva hung onto fourth while Zakelj bravely finished fifth.
"It was a hard race, but I felt very good this morning," said Süss. "In the first lap, I was not near the front, but I believed in me and I got my head in the right place and moved up step by step.
"I knew Kalentieva was right behind me, and I had to be first in the downhill. Going into the start of the sixth lap, she was in my shadow and I pushed, pushed, pushed on the uphill and tried to stay safe in the downhill."
Last year's eliminator world champion Engen, in sixth place, said, "I had so much fun. It's so nice when you get a good start and are up there fighting with the best. Today I didn't have the strength to be up there for the last two laps, but I'll do everything I can tomorrow in the eliminator. I'll ride like a maniac and then I'll see if I'm the best one," she told Cyclingnews.
Lea Davison (United States of America) was the top placed North American rider in ninth, her second best career finish at the world championships.
"I had a great start, but some bad luck at the beginning - getting caught behind some crit-like chaos put me just off the lead group for the first half of the race," said Davison. "I just didn't have that little extra. Man, I was close. It's not what I wanted. I was aiming for the top step, but it was solid and I'm looking forward."
Olympic bronze medallist Georgia Gould (United States) continued to struggle in what has been a challenging season. She finished 27th.
"The problem was that nothing of note happened out there today for me," said Gould, whose expectations were pretty low going into the race after a tough season so far. There was one bright spot, though. "Last year I didn't ride any of the A lines and this year I rode all of them, so I guess that's progress."
Former world champions Gunn Rita Dahle-Flesjaa and Catharine Pendrel (Canada) were 8th and 20th respectively.
"I'd had a beautiful start - working my way from third row into the top 10 on Katerina's wheel, but then I washed out on a corner in the amphitheater on the first lap and lost some spots," said Pendrel. "I was caught in traffic, worked my way back up and then crashed on the second lap in the rock garden. My body never really got going after that."
The South African contingent battled against the elite international competition with none of the representatives able to avoid the 80% rule in the race finale.
The local cause was also dealt a further cruel blow when their contingent was reduced by one after Amy McDougall crashed heavily at the Tree House section which meant that she had to be stretchered off the course after she went over the front of her handlebars.
Some editorial assistance provided by Gameplan Media