This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Gerhard Kerschbaumer (Italy) soloed to victory in the U23 men's cross country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on a damp and chilly Friday afternoon. Julien Schelb rode a solid race for Germany to earn the silver medal, finishing 58 seconds after Kerschbaumer while Michiel van der Heijden (Netherlands) put in a powerful late race surge to collect the bronze medal.
"I was a little tired at the beginning, and then I felt more confident. Right now, it's not sunk in that I'm world champion," said Kerschbaumer. "This year, I raced only the elites in the World Cup, and I think it helped."
They sky was heavy and gray as more than 60 men lined up for the start. It was supposed to rain, but when would it start? The Pietermaritzburg course, also used for World Cups, is fast in the dry, but is notorious for becoming very slippery once it gets wet.
Markus Schulte-Luenzum (Germany) helped set the pace at the start, along with Kerschbaumer. Anton Cooper (New Zealand), Luca Braidot (Italy), Jordan Sarrou (France), Jens Scheurmans (Belgium) and Daniele Braidot (Italy) were all in the mix near the front.
As racers jockeyed for a "safe" position among the leaders at high speed, Cooper couldn't hold the pace and dropped back a few spots while Luca Braidot, Kerschbaumer and Schulte-Luenzum established themselves as the lead trio. Sarrou and Daniele Braidot chased.
Luca Braidot and Kerschbaumer then pulled away from Schulte-Luenzum on lap 2. That's when Scheurmans went down hard in the Treehouse rock garden, crash landing outside the course tape, and eventually abandoning.
Then it was Schulte-Luenzum's turn for some misfortune - a technical problem meant a bit of running to the tech zone as the German lost his potential bronze medal. He continued racing and would end up 10th.
Kerschbaumer and Luca Braidot established a gap of over a minute at the front while Daniele Braidot moved up into the third spot. It looked possibly like the Italians would sweep the podium, and the two brothers were tearing it up along with Kerschbaumer.
However, at about the halfway point, Luca Braidot crashed hard in a rock garden and had to pull out of the race. That left Kerschbaumer alone at the front, hungry for gold.
"I didn't think Luca was so strong, but he pushed me, and when he crashed, I was so disappointed. I'm so sorry for what happened," said Kerschbaumer.
The rain started gradually with about two laps to go, making the finale a more slippery proposition.
"Last night, I looked at the forecast, and I decided to use the same tires I had been riding in training," said Kerschbaumer. "For the first laps, it was ok. The last one was difficult, but it worked out. When it started to rain, I was on the rocks, and it was quite difficult. The riders behind me were far away from me so I tried to control the advantage."
Schelb's consistency paid off as he overtook Danielle Braidot for the second spot.
"I had a bad crash at the start and was way back for a bit I had to catch some guys and it worked out."
Meanwhile, van der Heijden seemed to come out of nowhere, blasting himself from seventh into on lap 4 into the top three with one lap to go.
On the final lap, Kerschbaumer kept it smooth and steady as he raced to his second-ever cross country world championship title; he also won the junior title in 2009 in Australia. His win came just two days after his Italian team (including him) claimed gold in the team relay. Kerschbaumer said his fast lap in the team relay helped give him confidence in today's race.
Schelb also kept it clean for a strong, solo second place finish.
"On the first lap, the rocks were no problem. On the last lap, I was working on the rock gardens. It was so slippery the last two laps," said Schelb. "The second last lap, I was close to a crash. I decided to walk the last bit."
Van der Heijden jumped at the chance to claim the bronze.
"I was feeling strong on the first lap, I had a good start, but there was a crash going up the singletrack. From that moment on, I knew it would always be about catching up. There are always people who start fast and fall back later. I heard from people along side the track that they were coming back, so I went for it, trying to go for the podium."
Another man on the move was Cooper, who recovered from a slower middle portion of the race, when he was as far back as 13th place after his fast start, to finish an impressive fourth in his first year in the U23 ranks. He outsprinted Jordan Sarrou (France) by one second at the finish.
"The podium was about 20 seconds ahead, so I gave it everything, but it wasn't quite enough," said Cooper, who was last year's junior world champion. "I was disappointed with the first half of my race after having a great start. I just didn't have the legs. Gerhard was pushing so fast - it was so hard. It's frustrating to come so close to a medal, but it's good motivation for the years ahead."
American Howard Grotts was the top placed North American rider in 12th place. He seemed to get stronger as the race progressed after being in 46th place on the first lap.
"Since I had such a bad start, I was able to play a consistent race after my bad start," said Grotts. "People were definitely slowing down in front of me. It's nice to see improvement from last year. It's always good to see the things you can work on. Last year I was 16th in Austria. This year I'm 12th, so I'm moving up slowly, and now I know I need to work on my starts."
South Africans racing at home
In an afternoon which many of the South Africans in the field would prefer to forget, it was the somewhat unlikely figure of Brendon Davids who managed to provide some reason to celebrate for the local crowd as, despite suffering a dislocated shoulder in the dying moments of the race, hung onto an impressive top 20 position, finishing nineteenth overall and being the first South African home whilst Luke Roberts' consistent effort saw him finish 31st.
"I was seeded 37th on the start line but was lying third last early on after I couldn't get through the guys on the first climb," said Davids through tears and excruciating pain afterwards. "I have been working really hard and wanted a top 10 and so after my start, I thought back to a race I watched of Burry's (Stander) here at Cascades once."
"Burry was a long way down early on but just never gave up and rode all himself all the way back. I dug as deep as I could out there and managed to get back up to 16th at the start of the last lap and was really hoping to pick up one or two more places before the finish.
"I went into the Treehouse rock garden and I guess I was a little over eager though and things just got away from me and I crashed. I've been struggling with a dislocated shoulder all year, and when I crashed it popped it out again. I got going again and tried to go as hard as I could but unfortunately I lost three positions out there and finished 19th.
"Given my start, a top 15 would have gone down better, but I left it all out there. I had nothing more to give.
The hometown competitor's gutsy effort was widely appreciated by the Pietermaritzburg crowd and Davids crossed the line to a warm local reception.
"Thanks to everyone who came out here and supported me today," said Davids. "I'm a PMB boy so to be able race Worlds in front of my family here on a course that I love racing on in the wet, was really special!"
The race started in the worst possible way for Rourke Croeser, one of two local stars firmly eyeing out a top five finish and secretly hoping to even sneak onto the podium, who snapped his chain just metres from the start line and, after much confusion which resulted in him passing through the first tech zone shortly after the start, he was forced to run the first few kilometers with his bike to the next techzone before he received the assistance he needed.
Despite departing the tech zone last, Croeser refused to quit and, showing the determination few others possess, picked off the riders ahead of him on at a time until he found himself inside the top 50 before disaster struck for the second time as he broke his fork, ending his charge.
Fellow podium hopeful, James Reid, found himself in a far better position than his countryman early on in the encounter as he powered into seventh position overall and perfectly poised to pounce with his local knowledge of the course standing him in good stead to launch his attack.
It wasn't to be though as firstly a loose rear wheel forced him a long way down the field before a broken seat then cost him crucial further minutes and frustratingly and disappointingly destroyed any last hopes he may have had of consolidating things.