By Sue George, Cyclingnews.com
In his 14-year career, Jose Antonio Hermida had never won an elite men's world championship cross-country race. All that changed on Saturday afternoon at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, Canada.
In taking the victory, he also brought Spain its first elite men's cross-country gold medal. Jaroslav Kulhavy earned the silver medal for the Czech Republic while Burry Stander gave South Africa its first elite cross-country medal with the bronze.
After a careful look over his shoulder, an emotional Hermida stopped and lifted his bike high in the air to celebrate as he crossed the line as the new world champion. "I can't even talk. I'm full of emotions. I really wanted to win Worlds this year," he said. "Last year I was close, in fourth."
The men faced two starting laps plus six full laps, mostly after the morning rains had ceased. Over 80 men were on the start line vying for the holeshot, and not everyone would come out well.
Multiple world champion Julien Absalon (France) was one such rider. "I was in the crash after 200m," he said. "A guy in front of me went down. I crashed and maybe broke my little finger, and it took me a long time to disentangle my bike from the others."
The Frenchman, with years of experience racing and winning at Mont-Sainte-Anne, made a remarkable recovery as he chased the leaders, who included a fast starting Nino Schurter (Switzerland), Kulhavy and Stander. Marco Aurelio Fontana (Italy) and Ralph Naef (Switzerland) were also up there in the early laps. Despite his inauspicious start, Absalon was soon back in with the top eight riders.
Schurter and Kulhavy took turns at the front, but the seasoned Hermida and the first-year elite rider Stander were never far behind the two leaders. Defending champion Schurter seemed on track for a possible repeat but had to stop in the pits to change a tyre and lost several spots. He didn't give up though and kept on, soon working his way back to fourth.
Meanwhile, Absalon's luck didn't improve. The Frenchman had a flat that required a pit stop and wheel change. "I had too many problems today. To win the world championships, you have to have the perfect race," he said. "Sometimes you have a bad day and there's nothing you can do. It was one of those days."
Schurter and Absalon chased together for awhile, even after Schurter's bad luck continued with a second puncture. "The shit hit the fan and I flatted a second time. It wasn't my day," said Schurter, who was spotted later in the evening racing the pump track. "I felt in good shape, really strong in the beginning, but the luck was not there. I'm a bit disappointed, but that's mountain biking and next year is another chance."
With favourites Absalon and Schurter out of medal contention, Kulhavy and Stander took turns leading the race. With one-and-a-half laps to go, Hermida saw his chance. "Today was like a dream with a small crash in the beginning. After that it was like being at Disneyland," said Hermida, whose sense of humour has won him many fans.
Hermida had been caught in the same crash as Absalon at the start, but recovered well and rode free of mechanicals. "From the beginning, I had trouble in the first corner, but I knew it was a long race. It was hard to catch back up, but at Mont-Sainte-Anne, it's important to get to the first climb first. You have to be in the top five in the downhill sections.
"I struggled for a few laps, then I didn't really attack. I knew from my anchor leg in the team relay that I could get more speed on the last two laps. I just had to go 30 seconds faster by picking better lines."
Stander, Kulhavy and Hermida had been together, but Stander faded slightly off the pace of the Czech and Spaniard. Then the head games began. "Jaroslav is really strong," said Hermida. "I was wondering, 'Is he saving energy or playing with me?' On the gravel road climb, I decided I had to push it to the limit."
Hermida laughed as he said: "I knew I'd have five months' recovery after today, so I said 'Okay, I have to give everything now'. I had one second, then two seconds. I knew if I got 10 seconds, they wouldn't catch me."
That's exactly what happened as Hermida went on to collect the win, with time to enjoy every second as he celebrated across the line. "I was always close to winning the big races and I've been second to Absalon, and now I have my title," said Hermida.
Last weekend's World Cup winner Kulhavy, who won the 2003 junior world title, was feeling the effects of his efforts at Windham and said: "The race was very tough. I was trying to look out for the lead the whole race, but in the end Jose was just stronger and I came in second." Kulhavy was part of the medal-winning Czech team relay team earlier in the week, too.
Stander said he had an up-and-down season, but proved that he could make a good transition from under 23 to elite ranks. Last year's U23 world champion was content with third place among the elites. "I could feel my legs coming around last week at Windham and today, I felt good." The South African was onboard the 29er that he's used for half of the races this season. Schurter was fourth and Absalon finished fifth.
Geoff Kabush (Canada), another rider caught up in the early race crash, seemed to get stronger as the race progressed. He had his best finish of the season, in eighth, and was spurred on by the cheering crowds. "It was so loud you could barely hear yourself think," he said. "It really helped on the sections where you had to hurt."
Kabush wasn't surprised by Hermida's win. "I think Hermida showed in his relay lap that he's on form," he said. "He's one of the best technical riders and he had a great ride here. It's great to see him finally take the title after so many years."
The top American finishers were Sam Schultz in 20th and Todd Wells in 21st. "The start was chaos. There were so many crashes," said Schultz, who was pleased to log his best finish in three years of elite racing at Worlds. "I felt good at the end and was wishing there was one more lap – something I never wish for. The course was so rad."