Poland's Maja Wloszczowska rode to her first elite gold medal in a brave, solo ride at the cross-country world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, on Saturday.
Behind her, a chaotic final half-lap decided the remaining medal spots. In the end, Irina Kalentieva (Russia) finished second while Willow Koerber (United States) made a bold final pass of Canada's Catharine Pendrel in the final metres to take bronze for the second consecutive year.
"It feels amazing. I still can't believe it. It was my dream to win the world championships," said Wloszczowska, wearing her new rainbow-striped jersey.
The Pole, who has won two silver medals at previous world champs, had made an important decision; she skipped last week's final World Cup in Windham, New York, to focus on Saturday's race. It paid off as she had had more time to practise the technical sections of the course and was mentally and physically fresher.
Wloszczowska went to the front of a very competitive race with 3.5 to go of 5.5 total laps. For a time, she dangled off the front with about a 15-second gap, but by two-to-go, she'd extended it to 30 seconds. Barring catastrophe, it looked the like the gold would be hers.
"I knew that the course was very technical, and it's good to have some gaps to be allowed to make some mistakes," said the winner, who'd broken away on a climb. "I tried to save some power for the last lap, which was very hard. I was afraid of getting caught."
Wloszczowska crossed the line solo, ending up with a 48-second gap, while behind her three women fought for the remaining medals. Koerber was always near the front of the race and with 1.5 laps to go, she was on her own in second after passing Pendrel, who'd had a super-fast start.
At 10 to 20 seconds, Koerber's second place looked good, but was by no means secure, especially with last year's world champion Kalentieva and Pendrel, the newly crowned 2010 World Cup champion, hot on her tail. With about 10 minutes left to go, Koerber's likely silver medal was suddenly gone.
Riders had awoken to pouring rain early in the day and while it didn't rain for much of the race, the course, which had been dry and dusty all week, was wet but not muddy. It wasn't too slippery, but required laser-like focus to pick and hold lines as the race wore on.
Nearing the top of the rock garden section, Koerber slipped and fell. "It was the last half lap, and we were all getting tired," she said. "I was really exhausted. I didn't mess up on the hard section of the downhill, It was just before. I slipped and got stuck in the fencing at the top.
"My pedal got caught on a wooden stake. I was like, 'Get me out of here!' I thought, 'I can't go into this downhill all flustered'. You start to get dizzy out there when you're giving it your all. That can be a good thing, but you have to be careful."
The ever consistent Pendrel seized the opportunity and rode past Koerber. Pendrel took the "A" line on the notoriously rocky downhill section, moving herself into second place from third. "I was kind of panicking because I'd lost the entire gap I'd worked so hard for," said Koerber.
On an immediately following grinder of a climb, Kalentieva passed both Pendrel and Koerber as all three riders slipped and dabbed, completely spent as they each pushed with every last ounce of strength.
"I gave everything I had on that last climb," said the Russian. "I'm happy with silver. Of course, I wanted to win. I was second here last year at the World Cup and had come early to prepare on the technical sections."
"Everything" was enough for the silver. That left Pendrel and Koerber to fight for bronze with less than five minutes of racing remaining. "It was one of the hardest races I've ever done in my life," said Pendrel. "The pace was fast from the start, and I had an awesome start. Willow and Irina were always yoyo-ing with me. It came down to seconds between silver and fourth. That last lap was full of possibilities."
Pendrel seemed to have it, and then something super-competitive inside Koerber took over: "My boyfriend Myles was on the right as I passed him and he said, 'Don't give up on a medal'. I was almost in tears thinking, 'What just happened?" I'd gone from silver to fourth. He could see the pain in my eyes, and I was fighting as hard as I could.
"I got inspired to make that final pass before the last flyer. I'm not sure how I did it. I just got fire from somewhere and saw red and attacked. It was close." Koerber's third placed matched her third place of last year at worlds in Canberra.
Pendrel was fourth. "I had one bad corner and it was enough to lose the bronze, but it was still my best worlds and I'll keep moving toward a podium," she said. "It was unreal out there. It was the loudest world championships I've ever been to."
Two minutes after the winner, Elisabeth Osl (Austria) crossed the line on her own for fifth place. "The race was very hard, and the key was to be consistent from beginning to end," said Osl. "It was important to not go over the top at the beginning, to take good lines and not risk too much.
"I had a bad crash in the second lap. At the beginning, I was near Marie Helen Premont (Canada), and everyone was screaming so loud. They weren't calling my name, but it was still motivation. She is an idol to me and I look up to her. It was amazing to be with her in the race."
The American women had a stellar day with Heather Irmiger also finishing in sixth place and Mary McConneloug finishing in 13th. "I felt really good," said Irmiger, flashing a big smile after finishing. "It wasn't slippery. It didn't feel sketchy at all. I skipped the rock section every time. The one time I decided to ride it, someone crashed. I'm so stoked to have been up there doing an awesome ride for the USA. The American women are ruling."
McConneloug agreed that the course was riding well, but said she'd had a disconcerting experience early in the race. "I got clocked by the Italian Eva Lechner," she said. "She hit me in the face on the end of the second lap. I was trying to pass her in the singletrack, and I came around her and she tried to block me. I got by her and that's when she hit me in the face. I may need to talk to a UCI official about that. It's not fair play."