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MTB World Cup XC #3 & 4X #2 - CDM
Houffalize, Belgium, May 2-3, 2009
By Rob Jones in Houffalize
The UCI World Cup moves from Germany to Belgium for the next round of racing this weekend and, for the 17th time in the 19-year history of the World Cup, the series will visit Houffalize, Belgium. Chosen six times for the prestigious Rainbow Award as the best cross country race of the year, Houffalize is one of the true classics of mountain biking, an event that racers strive that much harder to win.
Houffalize will, for the first time, host a four cross World Cup race as well as its traditional cross country competition. This evening (Saturday) will see the four cross pros line up for their second race of the season, while the cross country athletes will have their third event, one week after round two in Offenburg, Germany.
After rain earlier in the week that turned the circuits into a muddy, slippery mess, the weather cleared up on Thursday, and the forecast is that it will remain dry and clear for the rest of the weekend.
Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox Factory) and Anneke Beerten (Suspension Center) will wear the leader's jerseys of the men's and women's competition after round one in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but could easily lose their leads in the rough and tumble action of four cross racing.
Former world and World Cup champion Jill Kintner of the United States did not make the final of the women's race in Pietermaritzburg, and is sure to be anxious to get back into contention for the World Cup title. She showed that she is more than capable after qualifying first on Friday night, ahead of Beerten. A pair of Czech riders - Romana Labounkova and Jana Horakova qualified third and fourth respectively, ahead of world champion Melissa Buhl (KHS). An impressive 24 women went through qualifying, and all will have the chance to race tonight.
Graves, primarily a downhill racer, showed that his four cross win in South Africa was certainly not a fluke by qualifying first, ahead of Roger Rinderknecht (GT) and Dutch rider Joost Wichman. Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Specialized Factory Team), the defending world and World Cup champion, continues to struggle, finishing 16th in qualifying.
The 450 metre long track drops 120 metres, for an average grade of over 25%, guaranteeing fast action under the night lights. However, some riders are less enthused by the relatively small jumps, which will limit their ability to get the height to clear whole sections. Kintner predicts "there will be a lot of snipers", referring to the wide opening cornering which will allow chasers the opportunity to pass.
"Maybe being first out of the gate won't be such an advantage here," she said. "I'll have to spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder for someone coming up behind."
The cross country at Houffalize always begins with a gut wrenching uphill sprint out of the center of town before funneling the riders into the dirt track. After the opening four kilometre lap, the riders settle into the full 7.4 kilometre circuit, with the women usually completing four laps and the men five. This year, it looks like the women may be reduced to three laps.
Houffalize has had both dry, choking dust and slippery mud, and this year's modifications to the course have added slippery rooted sections, one of which appears to be unrideable. If it stays dry as is expected, the pace will be furious, and riders will explode under the effort.
The course is similar to previous years in layout, however, some sections have been redesigned and re-cut slightly. This has made for some rough, bumpy portions, particularly on some of the downhills, where braking bumps make for a jarring ride, and riders are still trying to figure out what the best line is.
The women's race will see Austrian Elisabeth Osl (Central Ghost Pro Team) try to extend her time in the leader's jersey to three events. However, a win by either world champion Marga Fullana (Massi) or Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon) could see one of them don the jersey, since both are only 40 points behind Osl in the standings. The consistent Lene Byberg (Specialized Factory Racing) is also only 70 points back after two third places, and last week's winner Ren Chengyuan (China) - who won at Houffalize last year - could also take the lead with a second victory.
"This is a course tha
t I like," said Ren "and I would very much like to win here."
In the men's race, Julien Absalon's (Orbea) jersey is slightly more secure on his shoulders, with the French riders holding a 110 point lead over second place Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon), and a 140 point gap over third place Burry Stander (Specialized Factory Team). But Absalon, the Olympic champion, who took a record 18th World Cup victory last weekend in Offenburg, does not have a strong history in Houffalize, having won here only once before - last year. While Absalon is likely to retain his World Cup jersey after Houffalize, the bragging rights to being the champion of the 2009 event of this classic race are wide open.
Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), the winner of round one, affirms he is healthy again after dropping out in Offenburg. "I had fever and couldn't breath in Offenburg, but I was on antibiotics all week, and now I am ready to race again."
His teammate Ralph Näf had an impressive ride in Offenburg, moving up from 72nd to finish fifth. Here, he is 15th on the start grid, and "I hope that I can have a ride like last week, with this new start position."
- The Felt International team appears to be in some financial difficulties. The UCI has confirmed that top rider Kashi Leuchs has filed an appeal about not having been paid, which is the same situation facing other riders on the team and the staff (most of whom are not here, with a small number of replacements filling in). Only three riders will start in team colours - Blaza Klemencic for the women, and Connor McConvey and Emil Lindgren for the men. The highest ranked team member, Jurg Graf in 36th, will race in Swiss national colours. Senior team staff insist that the situation will be resolved shortly.
- 2000 Olympic champion Miguel Martinez will be racing. He was fired before South Africa by his team - Felt - after being convicted of assaulting his wife in a French court. There were rumours that he had been re-hired by Felt, but he will be racing in a plain jersey with Olympic rings and rainbow stripes.
- Women's downhill world champion Rachel Atherton (Animal-Commencal) is here with her brothers Gee and Dan, but will not be racing ... for the foreseeable future. After her crash in California earlier in the year, Atherton has continuing shoulder problems and will require surgery in about two weeks. The word is that we shouldn't expect to see her racing again until the Worlds at the earliest.
- The Specialized duo of world champion Christoph Sauser and Under 23 World Cup leader Burry Stander will debut the SRAM XX group here in Houffalize. According to Stander and team mechanics, the group has a number of benefits:
* lighter than previous components, with the rear cogset all one piece (except for the top / largest cog)
* a rear derailleur that will handle up to a 36 tooth cog, allowing riders to run a 2x9 system, for further weight reduction
* completely redesigned shift and brake levers. The Specialized riders will be riding SRAM brakes with Avid levers.
According to Stander, combined with the Specialized carbon crank, the wide range cogset can handle the full range of gearing in the big ring, with no rubbing (on the front derailleur) - "I'll be running pretty much the entire race on the big ring, and I think the next step will be a single front ring with a chain guard."
Stander also said that brakes are greatly improved "more powerful, with better control".
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Rob Jones / www.canadiancyclist.com