By Sue George, Cyclingnews.com
Switzerland swept the podium of the Under 23 men's cross-country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, Canada on Friday afternoon. Mathias Flückiger won the race ahead of Thomas Litscher and Patrik Gallati.
"Today was an amazing race for me," said Flückiger. "I had a good season and finished it off well here at the world championships."
Flückiger overcame a flat tyre on the second lap to take victory. He and his compatriots took five of the top 10 finishing spots, which bodes well for the future of an already strong Swiss mountain bike programme.
From the gun, the fast men, including Litscher, Gallati, Gerhard Kerschbaumer (Italy), Alexis Vuillermoz (France), Marek Konwa (Poland) and Flückiger set a blistering pace that strung out the field.
Halfway into the first full lap, of six-and-a-half total laps, Vuillermoz, Flückiger, Litscher and Kerschbaumer formed a quartet at the front. The four would sometimes gap each other but kept coming back together.
On lap two, eventual winner Flückiger had a mechanical. "It was a slow leak in my tyre at first, and I could continue riding to the tech zone, where I switched out my front wheel," he said.
"As it went flat, it was sketchy in the corners until I got it changed. I lost some places on the way to the tech zone and while in there I lost some more. It was disappointing, but I was able to get back in the lead group."
The flat didn't slow Flückiger down for long as he was soon attacking the rest and alone off the front of the race with 3.5 laps to go. "After my flat, I thought maybe today is not my day," said Flückiger, "then I found my rhythm and I made an attack in the technical part."
Behind him, Vuillermoz and Kerschbaumer led the chase, but Litscher and Gallati weren't much further in arrears, always less than a minute back.
With a little over two laps to go, Flückiger dropped one of his two bottles as he came through the feed, but again, it didn't seem to slow him down and he maintained a consistent, approximately 30-second gap to the chasers.
"It was hot, but it wasn't too hot like it has been the last few days. It was important to drink a lot on this track. It was difficult to drink with all the technical sections," said Flückiger. "I must always remember that I must drink when I'm in the lead."
What did change was the chasers. Vuillermoz and Kerschbaumer started to fade and lose ground while Litscher and Gallati seemed to get stronger as they moved up and set themselves up for a battle for silver.
"I made my attack on the steep climb before the rocks, and I thought now or never. Last year, I was third and I wanted to get second," said Litscher. "I came here to ride onto the podium. I liked the track although I crashed a lot in the last few days. But today was perfect."
Litscher finished in second, 30 seconds behind Flückiger and ahead Gallati at 1:04 in third. "My whole season was not very good, so third place today makes me very happy," said Gallati. "I didn't have much energy left on the last lap, but I knew the gap to fourth place and it was important to hang onto third. Second would have been better, but I'm happy with third."
That third gave Switzerland the full sweep of the podium spaces, though Flückiger said there was no particular team approach going into the race. "We had no team strategy," he said. "We have a lot of good riders. The whole team was, of course, trying to win medals and it was perfect – we won three medals."
Vuillermoz, who finished as runner-up in the U23 race last year, held on for fourth at 2:49 and Kerschbaumer was fifth. "I wanted to win this race today, but it wasn't my day," said Vuillermoz. "At the beginning, I tried to attack, but I had a flat tyre. I tried to come back after, but the others took my wheel and worked me over. They attacked and I couldn't do anything."
Last year's junior world champion Kerschbaumer called the race "hot and difficult" and complimented the Swiss on their strength. The Italian, a first-year U23 rider was ecstatic at his top-five placing among his older peers.