This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Nino Schurter (Switzerland) successfully defended his rainbow jersey by winning the elite men's cross country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, on Saturday afternoon. Manuel Fumic (Germany) battled Jose Hermida (Spain) for the silver medal, with the German distancing the Spaniard in the later laps.
"It was the perfect race for me," said Schurter. "My goal was to start a really fast first lap. [Julien] Absalon is my biggest rival, and he is always strong on the first lap. I had a gap of five seconds on the others after the first lap then I just rode my pace and tried not to go too much into the red zone."
Former world champion Julien Absalon (France) wasn't ever at the front, but he did put in an impressive race as he somehow managed to place in the top-10 with three broken ribs. Another former world champion, Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic), had a poor start, but rode a strong finish and ended up in fifth place.
The race began in its usual fury, with racers flying along a slightly uphill straightaway and racing toward the hole shot for the singletrack. It didn't go well for everyone. Last year's runner-up, Lukas Flueckiger (Switzerland), crashed just after the start and got run over by those behind him. A Swiss team staff person said afterward that he broke several ribs and was taken away for medical evaluation. Others, like American Todd Wells, were held up by the crash.
Schurter didn't waste any time. Right from the gun he pushed the pace, trying to create gaps that would demoralize some of his rivals.
Hermida said, "Nino took his chances and started fast at the beginning, so everyone had to suffer. I tried to keep his pace. I know I'm 35 and my chances to be world champion again are not many. I tried to stay on his wheel, but it was impossible. He killed me in the first lap."
Schurter's Swiss teammate Fabian Giger put in a strong effort to stay initially in second spot, but it would cost him later. Hermida, Fumic, Marco Fontana (Italy) and Maxime Marotte (France) were well represented at the front in the first two laps.
Henrique Avancini was among the top riders on the first few laps, leaving everyone to wonder who was the rider in the Brasilian jersey.
On the second lap of the seven-lap race, Fontana crashed for a second time and broke his saddle, requiring a stop in the pit area. The Italian dropped to 28th place, but did not quit and continued to pick off other riders for the rest of the race despite his disappointment. He would make it back up as far as 12th.
"I hit my line, but I couldn't handle my bike and I went down hard the first time. I was like 'ok, no big deal, you can still make it'," Fontana told Cyclingnews. "Then afterward we were closing on Nino and I went left and hit a big stone and flipped. That's when I broke my seat."
Having started too quickly, Avancini and Giger started going backward while Ondrej Cink (Czech Republic), Miguel Martinez (France), Florian Vogel (Switzerland) and Moritz Milatz (Germany) spent some time in the top 10. Cink crashed in the Corkscrew near the end of lap 2 and dropped back a few spots.
Schurter quickly established a small gap, but never one big enough for him to be too comfortable. Hermida chased between five and 10 seconds back while Fumic, who had dropped back after a crash in the rocks in the Treehouse section, worked his way back forward.
Fumic said, "I had some issues and crashed when Giger was in my way, but it was at the beginning of the race. I was really focused. When I crashed I was like, 'ok, I have a plan. I'll make it back'."
"I just tried to race my pace," said Schurter. "I didn't want to go too hard and make too big of a gap too soon. For a long time they were really close to me. At one point, the gap started growing a bit and then I knew that I needed to hold the pace."
Fumic managed to stay cool and collected after his crash and maintained his focus. He steadily worked his way back up to Hermida, and the two joined forces on lap 4.
Marotte, Cink, Milatz, Absalon and for a time, Vogel, formed the main chase group.
Fumic had a bit more gas than Hermida and was riding the rock gardens slightly better, and so the German gapped Hermida in the Treehouse section and then started to ride away.
"I caught Jose and we were fighting together. Finally I made it - second place. I never felt as good before. Jose was pushing hard, I could always feel his pressure and he was breathing behind me. But it was a good thing. I can't believe I made it to second place," said Fumic.
Hermida said, "I just tried to keep my pace and stay on the podium. Manny did a steady race and caught me. I couldn't stay on his wheel either. But I could suffer in for third place."
The elastic between Schurter and his top chasers seemed to stretch as the defending champion's gap stretched to as much as 40 seconds by lap 6. Fumic chased alone in second while Hermida was another 5-10 seconds back.
Schurter looked smooth and confident, but as Absalon could tell you, anything can happen in a mountain bike race and cost you a major victory. On the last downhill, Schurter was reminded of that when he crashed. Fortunately, for him, he was up again in no time and did not lose his lead.
The Swiss star won the race in a time of 1:40:17. Fumic crossed the line seven seconds later for the silver medal while 2010 world champion Hermida was delighted to end up with the bronze at 21 seconds after Schurter.
Fumic said, "In May I broke my collarbone and I had a speedy recovery, and I concentrated on the Worlds. Yesterday I felt good in training, very comfortable. I knew I could grab one of these medals."
The good-humored Hermida, who promised to keep racing at least until the Rio Olympics in 2016, said, "I enjoy being with these young guys. It keeps me young. I know it's not possible to win the world championships at 35, but maybe at 36."
Marotte hung on for fourth place while Olympic champion Kulhavy made a late race surge to jump up into fifth place.
Kulhavy told Cyclingnews, "I crashed in the rock garden early on. I was behind Miguel Martinez. I was faster and went a different way, but we crashed into each other. I felt good today and my legs were amazing, but that one crash near the start cost me. I had my old form near the end, but it was too late. I have to have a stronger winter next year and hope for more wins next year."
A notable absentee from the action at the front end of the field was Australia's Daniel McConnell who, having suffered a near race ending crash when he collided with a troupe of monkeys whilst training on the road a week ago, struggled to find his prime form and disappointingly slipped back early on in the clash.
The day was also not a good one for the local lads as top South African rider Philip Buys struggled to stay on his bike, leaving Renay Groustra and Matthys Beukes to fly the flag for the host nation as they came home in 47th and 49th position respectively.
Editorial assistance provided by Gameplan Media