MTB Worlds 2012: Schurter wins men's cross country

Swiss make clean sweep of podium

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Nino Schurter led the Swiss sweep of the top three places at the elite men's cross country world championship in Saalfelden, Austria on Saturday afternoon. The all red-and-white podium also included Lukas Flückiger and his brother Mathias in second and third spots, respectively.

"It was my best season ever, and I'm happy," said Schurter. "It's a great victory for Switzerland. I felt good today, had no problems and was healthy." It was his second elite world championship title - his first came in 2009.

Clearly the strongest rider on the day, Schurter burned out the legs of many who tried to hang with him. Marco Fontana (Italy) and Fabien Giger (Switzerland) were initially the only two men who could follow Schurter's wheel. Eventually, Giger, who was having his best-ever Worlds performance, fell off the lead pace, and later Fontana did, too. About that time, the Italian was caught by Lukas and then Mathias Flückiger. With the medals gone, Fontana's motivation was also gone and he was passed by eventual fourth place finisher Julien Absalon (France) and Giger toward the end of the race.

Absalon had a fast start and a quick finish, but lagged in the middle of the race. He began by leading the colorful peloton up the road climb that featured in the start loop in front of a large crowd.

On the first full lap of eight total non-start loop laps, Schurter went to the front and set the pace. Only Fontana and Giger went with him. It was no surprise to see Fontana, who'd recently spent time with Nino in the lead trio during most of the Olympic cross country race three weeks ago, but when Giger passed spectators, many asked, "Who is THAT Swiss guy?" Giger was having the race of his life as he furiously tried to hang onto the lead group.

"I planned to do a good start and it worked out," said Giger. "I was in with the lead at the beginning."

Behind Giger, chasers initially included Florian Vogel (Switzerland), Absalon, Lukas Flückiger, Sergio Mantecon (Spain), Manuel Fumic (Germany), Mathias Flückiger, Ralph Naef (Switzerland), Maxime Marotte (France) and Stéphane Tempier (France).

Conspicuously missing from the top chasers were 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic), Burry Stander (South Africa) and 2010 world champion Jose Antonio Hermida (Spain).

With a little shuffling and some time to separate riders, the top chase group ended up including Tempier, Mathias Flückiger, Vogel, Absalon, Marotte, Lukas Flückiger and Fumic.

Tempier surged in an attempt to bridge up to the lead three while Absalon, Vogel and Mathias Flückiger were just behind. Lukas Flückiger had dropped back a few places.

Giger and Tempier in the top five was something not many had predicted, and no one knew if the up and coming elite riders could hang for the duration.

Meanwhile at the front, Schurter looked like a million bucks. He seemed to climb with ease and descend with the fluidity of a top skier flying down a snowy mountain - his technical skills looked spot on.

Giger started to have trouble holding on to Schurter and Fontana and after getting dropped a few times and catching up a few times, he finally succumbed for good and started slipping back to ride on his own for a few laps in third place.

"The problem was not the pace. I lost them on the downhills," said Giger. "Two times I could catch back up after the downhills but after three or four times, I lost them."

Tempier still chased furiously as of laps 4 and 5 and after he passed the fading Giger, the Frenchman rode in third for a time.

Tempier wasn't to be in third for good, though, as Mathias Flückiger surged forward. Perhaps motivated by the strong riding of his brother, Lukas Flückiger recovered from his mid-race slump and surged forward again, too, hot on the heels of his younger brother.

Tempier then paid the price for his efforts as he lost places. "I had a good race at the beginning. The race was so fast and the last laps were difficult," said Tempier, who would end up ninth. "I crashed on the last lap - not a big deal, but I was tired. It was a good race and bodes well for next season."

Lap 6 offered plenty of shake-ups in Schurter's wake. Fontana came unglued from Schurter's wheel and started going backward while Lukas Flückiger jumped up into second, just ahead of Mathias Flückiger. The two brothers appeared to be in the medals.

"I didn't know how close they were. I was fighting for winning - that's what motivated me," said Fontana. "Nino was just too strong for me. Before the race, I was pretty good and I could do a good race, but probably not win. Once I got out there, I thought I felt good and at some point, he would slow down, but he didn't and I blew up. Winning was what matters, and I think I did well for the Italian jersey, but it wasn't enough."

Racing in the number two spot, Lukas Flückiger came on strong the last few laps and closed the gap to Schurter to as little as 15 seconds, but the leader didn't let his countryman get any closer and gradually again stretched out the lead.

"I knew before the race that I had to be in the front for a medal," said Lukas Flückiger. "But the first two laps were too fast. I had to slow down a little bit. But I think it was right for me, because I had more power at the end of the race and could come back.

"I'm always stronger in the end of the race. I sometimes have problems in the first two or three laps of the race."

Schurter admitted that he "got a little nervous" as Lukas Flückiger got nearer. "I tried not to get too nervous and just do my race and not make mistakes."

The race was set up for the Swiss to sweep the podium with one lap to go.

Schurter stayed out of trouble and cruised to the win ahead of both Flückiger brothers. Fontana dropped back to sixth place, clearly unmotivated after a shot at the rainbow stripes was gone. It was all or nothing for the Italian, who is hungry to win his first World Cup or Worlds.

Lukas Flückiger more than surpassed his previous Worlds best finish of second place as a U23 rider in Livigno.

"I wasn't focused on the results today, I was focused on me and putting the hammer down. But it was motivating to see the guys coming back and the gap to Nino going down. But by the second last lap, I realized the gap was stable and I knew Nino had some reserves somewhere."

Bronze medallist Mathias Flückiger said, "It's just incredible. It's such a nice feeling. It was so hard. I had a hard start to the season and was for a long time in a low point. The past few months, I've gotten better and better and I am finishing this season really well. It's great Lukas and I could come onto the podium together."

Absalon, who had faded to eighth mid-race, jumped forward in the standings to finish in fourth place on the day.

No longer trying to follow Schurter, Giger recovered enough to ride solidly into fifth place.

"I'm satisfied. Fifth place is ok," said Giger. "It was confidence builder. I'm set up well for next year."

Race notes

- Switzerland continued its general dominance of the men's division of the sport with four of the top five finishers and seven riders in the top 20. By virtue of taking the top three spots, they got the highest possible score in the nations' rankings.

- It was the first time both Flückiger had shared a podium in Worlds. Just once at a World Cup - in Champery - did they ever share a World Cup podium although both have done well on different days. "It's hard for us to both go in the same race at the same pace," said Mathias Flückiger.

- Geoff Kabush (Canada) was the top North American finisher in 18th. "It's tough to keep mentally focused after a big goal like the Olympics comes and goes. I did some consistent riding - no racing - since the Olympics. I came out and felt all right in the team relay and thought I might have a chance to ride up there today, but I couldn't make it past the top 20 or 15 after the first few laps. I didn't have the legs to move up. It's been a consistent year, and I had fun with my new team. I'm going to keep focused and look forward to next year." Kabush will do a stage race next weekend, then Interbike and Cross Vegas. 2013 'cross Worlds is also on his radar since it will be in North America, but he said he won't make any decisions until December.

- With a 35th place, Todd Wells was the top American.

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