Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech) raced to his first-ever elite men's cross country world championship on Saturday afternoon in Champery, Switzerland. The victory capped off a perfect season for Kulhavy, who had also won the World Cup overall title two weeks ago in Val di Sole. Former world champion Nino Schurter (Switzerland) won the silver while still another former world champion Julien Absalon (French) earned bronze. In fact, the race turned into a battle among three former world champions and one soon-to-be world champion.
"It's an incredible season for me - the best season in my life," said Kulhavy. "It's like what Julien did. I hope I will be the best like him. My future is just beginning. I think the Olympics will be a good race for me. I hope to get a medal."
From the start, it was a contest of six men: Kulhavy, Schurter, Florian Vogel (Switzerland), Absalon, Jose Antonio Hermida (Spain) and Maxime Marotte (France). The group formed on the start loop, and those who missed it were out of medal contention for the duration.
Marotte was the first to come off the back. Later it was Vogel's turn after he'd put in a big effort to help Schurter set the pace early on.
"I did not feel very good," said Vogel. "I was very motivated for this race, and I tried to stay with the leaders for the first few laps, but I probably put in too much effort and couldn't hold on the last few laps. I tried to work together with Nino."
Left with Schurter, Kulhavy and Hermida, Absalon hit a root and flew through the air in a spectacular crash that gapped him off the other three. He would never regain the leaders thereafter.
"As for the crash, these things happen," said Absalon. "For me, there was no other choice but full attack - before or after the crash. When Kulhavy is riding strong, you already have a hard time following him. When you have a crash it's even harder to chase him. I wanted to fight hard to get back in the chase group. I took lots of risks."
At about the midpoint of the race, the skies opened and it started to pour, making a technical course even more technical.
"Everybody started with slick tires, but then it started to rain and it was difficult for all of us. It would have been a good bet to start with rain tires," said Absalon. "It was a good course."
Kulhavy and Schurter spent most of the race at the front together, and in fact, Schurter spent a majority of the early laps setting the pace and giving Kulhavy a real challenge.
"I had a good tactic to put pressure on him," said Schurter. "Things turned out well at the beginning. I had my chance and tried my best. I'm pleased with my race because I tried to challenge him and I have no regrets. He deserved today - he had a good season."
But Kulhavy said he never really felt pressure for a result today. "I didn't feel pressure going into the race because my season has been so good. I was very satisfied already before this race."
Afterward, the Czech rider admitted he didn't feel well early on. But with about one and a half laps to go, he decided to go to the front and put the hammer down. Schurter made a small mistake, couldn't follow and began to slip back.
"In the beginning, the race was hard for me because Nino was strong," said Kulhavy. "I was dead then. But during the race, I felt better and better which was good.
"I attacked him after the hill because I felt strong on the flat sections. I kept it up and I had 10 seconds, then 20 seconds. It was good for me."
Hermida had been riding with the two leaders, but a flat tire cost him some time and places. As a result, Absalon moved up to third, but Hermida hung in there after a wheel change for fourth place.
"I made some mistakes and paid with a flat tire," said Hermida. "I got a flat, but if you don't have form all year, it wouldn't be fair to win. It's fair that Kulhavy is the champion - he was fighting all year and won most of the races. He deserves it."
Hermida pointed out a parallel between last year's Worlds and this year's Worlds. "Last year, (then defending champion) Nino flatted twice and finished fourth. This year, I flatted and finished fourth. Maybe next year, I'll be back up there again like Nino was this year."
The North Americans placed three riders in the top 20: Todd Wells (United States) in a Worlds career-best seventh place; Geoff Kabush (Canada) in 10th and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (United States) in 12th.
"After it started to rain, I got a groove going," said Wells, who was hoping to make a top 5 and secure an Olympic team qualification. "I generally die near the end of the race, but today I kept moving up at the end, and that was a big boost for me. I was surprisingly good on the climb today, too. It's funny how everyone is talking about how great it is to be done with this season, but for me I go straight into cyclo-cross and I don't get a break until October."
"It was great. I felt like I had this course dialed all week," said Horgan-Kobelski. "I was doing all right and then it started raining and I started moving up fast. I was riding all the technical stuff very clean and I was climbing well. It's great to have a result like this."
Overall, the riders were pleased with the course. "Conditions were difficult, but it was an exciting race," said Absalon. "It was a great race to promote mountain biking. The Swiss cheered everyone on."
"This course is the most legitimate mountain biking in the world," said Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (United States). "This is the hardest course we've raced on."
Talking with Adam Craig and Sam Schultz (both United States) after the race, both agreed that the jump on the US Pro XCT course in Missoula was a much bigger deal than the jump on this course.
"Missoula was way bigger and scarier," said Craig. "Here I rode it every lap - no big deal. In Missoula it took me four laps to not be scared."
Craig and Schultz finished 34th and 35th respectively, and the latter said the result left him hungry for a chance to do well when next season comes around.
For a full report and results check Cyclingnews.com