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MTB World Cup XC # 3 - CDM
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, May 20-21, 2006
Soggy slug fest in Spa
By Rob Jones in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
One week after the heat of Madrid, the Mountain Bike World Cup moves north to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, with heavy rain and mud on the menu. With 24 hours to go, torrential rain, high winds, thunder and lightning are sweeping the area, followed by teasing glimpses of sunshine. This dumps extra moisture on an already water-logged region, and the course is turning into a muddy mess.
The 5.5 kilometre circuit is almost completely different from last year, with only the opening climb carried over. The riders head up a paved climb on the Formula One circuit then cut into the woods to drop quickly back down and before making an immediate steep ascent again on single track. After another short drop they head up the main climb of nearly a kilometre and a half to the top of the course.
The long climb is becoming unrideable, and at the top the riders begin a steady descent through the trees where they run into a mud bog. At the bottom of the descent they have one more short, sharp climb and descent before a paved uphill run to the start-finish line. What they can ride will be either slippery or a slog through mud. Currently, the expectation is that there will be 4.5 laps for the men and 3.5 laps for the women.
Sabine Spitz (Specialized) is not at all happy with the circuit. "Last year it was a problem with mud sections, and they did not do much to improve it before the race. This year is the same, and they have not done anything to avoid this problem with the mud. They (the organisers) know what the climate is like in this area, so it should not be a surprise. This is very disappointing."
Adam Craig (Giant) wasn't quite as upset with the circuit, but did say that he expected it to be a hard race. "There is a lot of bike and hike, that's for sure. Many of the uphills probably won't be in too good a shape by the time our race takes place (Master and Junior riders race today and the women tomorrow morning). That long climb is going to be really hard, and it will be pretty technical coming down because there are lots of slippery roots and mud patches."
Making it even more difficult for the men is the reported field of 275-280 riders. Last week in Madrid over 200 riders started, and there was blatant course cutting on the first lap as those at the back tried to move up and avoid getting caught by the 80% cutoff rule (riders more than 80% behind the race leader are pulled from the race). This week is likely to be even worse.
For the women, the obvious favourite is, once again, Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida). Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) was on track to finish second last week until a flat took her out of contention. Premont beat Dahle here at Spa last year; it was the first time Dahle had been beaten in a World Cup in two years. The Canadian champion is certainly hungry to get back on the podium, and has always raced well in the mud. Other women to watch will be Sabine Spitz, Maja Wloszczowska (Lotto) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak-Ergon).
In the men's field, expect another showdown between world champion Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agos) and Christoph Sauser (Specialized). The two were the class of the field last week, and Absalon barely pipped Sauser at the line to take the win and the overall lead in the World Cup. Ralph Näf (Multivan Merida) should also be strong - he stayed with Absalon and Sauser until the last half lap, and is only getting better.