Burry Stander (Specialized Factory Racing) has had the best week of his career after following up his Under 23 cross-country world championship title last weekend with his first World Cup win.
Taking what was also the first South African cross-country World Cup win, Stander beat series leader Julien Absalon (Orbea) in a thrilling come-from-behind victory at round seven in Champéry, Switzerland.
Absalon's second place locked up the overall title for the French rider with one race remaining, while Stander did the same for the Under 23 title. Ralph Näf (Multivan Merida) took third.
Alexis Vuillermoz (Lapierre International) led the field of 144 out of the start loop for the first of six laps. He continued to ride at the front on lap two, but Absalon was reeling him in, and took the lead on lap three, attacking on the main climb. As Absalon extended his lead to over one minute by the fourth lap, it appeared that the race was unfolding as expected.
However, on lap five, the first indication that this might be a historic day occurred when Stander began to slowly pull back the Olympic champion, knocking 20 seconds off the lead. An interesting and unprecedented situation was happening: Absalon was fading while Stander was getting stronger.
Going into the final, long climb before the technical descent to the finish, Absalon still had a lead of 25 seconds, but while he was struggling, Stander was powering up the climb, and he caught his rival at the top shortly before entering the singletrack. Stander swept by Absalon and rolled into the finishing straight 15 seconds ahead, punching the air in victory.
Absalon rolled across the line and collapsed at the side of the track, utterly shattered after his ride, and only holding off Näf by nine seconds. The Flückiger brothers – Lukas and Mathias – both riding for Trek World Racing, completed the podium at 28 and 41 seconds respectively.
Stander and Absalon had taken two different approaches to their long trip back to Europe from Canberra. Stander went home to South Africa for two days (same time zone as Europe) and then flew up to Switzerland. Absalon, by contrast, stayed in Sydney for two days, then went to Singapore for two days before flying to Europe. Absalon's wife said her husband was "exhausted" before the race began.
"For sure, this is a huge victory for me, my first World Cup win," said Stander. "I had a good week, resting up from Australia, so I think I came into the race well prepared.
"The start was pretty fast, so I lost a few spots, but I was able to move up on the first lap, and by lap two, I was in a good spot. For the last two laps, I was hearing that I was getting closer to Julien, so it gave me lots of motivation, especially when I could see him on the climb. When I caught up to him, I could see that he had nothing left, so I just went."
Craig moved up from the low 20s in the first lap to top-10 by mid-race and then to sixth in the final lap, after posting some of the fastest lap times for the second half of the race.
"I had, for me, a pretty good start, not dropping back too far," he said. "Then I was able to start moving up, because I think I maybe had more in the tank than some of those guys that dug so deep last week [at the Worlds]. For me, this is a sweet, sweet course, with the good climb, some nice singletrack, that was still rideable even after the rain last night."
Elite women: Osl wins after skipping last week's World Championships
Elisabeth Osl (Central Ghost Team) decided to skip the World Championships last weekend in Australia to focus on the World Cup, and it paid dividends on Sunday at round seven in Champéry, Switzerland, when she decisively won and took the lead in the overall standings with one race remaining.
Anna Szafraniec (JBG-2 Pro MTB Team) finished second, with Lene Byberg (Specialized Factory Racing), in the World Cup leader's jersey, finishing third.
Traditional fast starter Eva Lechner (Colnago Cap Arreghini) took the lead into the first of five laps, closely followed by Swiss champion Katrin Leumann, Osl's team-mate Sabine Spitz and Osl.
A number of top riders were struggling, including newly crowned world champion Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), Byberg, Marga Fullana (Massi) and Catharine Pendrel (Luna). Kalentieva crashed on the second lap, landing on her knee, and was taken to hospital; it was an inauspicious start to her reign as world champion.
Fullana pulled out on the same lap with, as it turned out, a back injury. According to her team, she crashed in training two days before the race, damaging a vertebra. She will now see a specialist to assess the severity of the injury.
Osl and Lechner moved into the lead on the first lap, already 40 seconds ahead of Leumann, Szafraniec and Spitz by the start of the second lap, with Byberg 1:21 back and seeing her World Cup lead disappearing.
Osl took the lead on the second lap, but it was a slim five- to 10-second gap that did not change until just before the start of the last lap, when Lechner flatted, letting Szafraniec move into second place. The Italian managed to get to the pit in fourth and hold onto that spot, but her chances of winning were finished.
Byberg had a strong race coming from behind. She moved up to join a chase group of Spitz, Pendrel and Leumann mid-race, and then dropped them to move into third. However, anything other than a win would have dropped her out of the lead, so she goes into the final round 65 points behind Osl, who will be racing in front of her native Austrian fans.
"Yesterday I woke up with a cold, and my head felt thick," said Osl, "so I didn't think it was possible to win here. When Eva and I were away in front, I was being more cautious in the technical sections, because it would have been easy to make a mistake, and lose a lot of time.
"But I was faster [than Lechner] on the climb, and when I went into the lead, it wasn't really an attack. I could see that she was at her limit and I was still able to go harder. The gap was small until Eva flatted, and it was only then that I knew that I could win.
"It is really cool to win, and become the leader as the World Cup goes to my home country. This makes me happy with my decision not to go to the World Championships."
The final lap took its toll on Pendrel, who slipped down to 10th. "That was really hard," she said after crossing the line. "I had a good race, I was climbing and descending well, but I think we are staring to see some riders coming into form who weren't as strong earlier into the season. This just shows the depth of the women's field."
Emily Batty (Team Canada) finished 20th, the fourth Under 23 rider. Her result leaves her in second overall in the Under 23 standings, 33 points behind world champion Aleksandra Dawidowicz (CCC Polkowice), who was ninth in today's race and the highest-placing Under 23 racer. Batty goes into the final round with a 31-point advantage over third placed Caroline Mani (Team Bikepark.ch).
Junior men: Reis wins by slim nine-second margin
Surrounded by steep Alps, Ricardo Paulo Reis Marinheiro (Portugal) won the men’s junior race here in Champéry on the strength of his climbing. Reto Indergand (Switzerland) battled hard for the victory but had to settle for second place. Matthias Stirnemann (Switzerland) was third, Evan Guthrie (Canada) fourth, and Aurelien Daniel fifth.
The course at Champéry is technical, with many steep climbs and descents. Riders who could handle the steep climbs well faired much better than riders accustomed to flatter courses. Marinheiro and Indergand rode much of the race together, but Indergand suffered a small crash on flat singletrack with one half lap to go, allowing his rival to get away on the final climb.
"On the second lap I attacked and got 20m but he came back. He crashed on the last lap so I attacked again on the uphill section," said Marinheiro.
Evan Guthrie, a pre-race favourite, appeared to have a bit of trouble with the steepness of the course. "It was very hard after all the travel," he said. "I didn’t have a great start and fell back quite a bit then had to pass some guys. But on the steep part of the climb the gap would open up huge… that was my weakest part. Then I would close the gap on the false flat at the top. But, I’m happy to go home with another medal."
Elite women: Swiss riders sweep top three spots
Michelle Hediger (Fisher BMC) rode off the front of the junior women’s race early and was never challenged. She looked especially proficient on the technical descents that seemed to disrupt the riding of some of her challengers. Her lead grew as the race progressed and she rode in alone for the victory.
Vania Schumacher (Switzerland) finished second and was given enthusiastic support by her countrymen. Tanja Starkermann (Switzerland) finished third followed by Lisa Mitterbauer (Team Bikepark) in fourth. Cayley Brooks (Canada) rounded out the podium in fifth.
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