As the Cross-country World Cup series moved east to the Czech Republic for the second round it had a tough job to live up to the dramas and surprises of round one. It was rain and mechanicals that were the spanners in the works in Albsatdt a week ago; here the overcast weather just about held dry, with only a few minor sprinkles during the races, leaving the stage set for some titanic battles.
The Women’s event had a four way tussle for the lead during most of the race between Wloszczowska, Pendrel, Zakelj and round one’s winner Eva Lechner. Lechner was cruelly taken out of contention by a puncture which due to the front groups fast pace and sizeable lead only saw her drop back to fifth, after pulling into the tech zone for a new wheel. Reigning champion Catharine Pendrel looked to be the favourite having been setting the pace with Lechner but Zakelj, who had appeared to be struggling, upped the pace on the penultimate lap.
The challenge was laid down by the 24 year old for her more experienced rivals to match. Pendrel didn’t have what it took and came in a lonely third whilst Maja Wloszczowska did her best to take it to the line but slid out as the track transitioned to tarmac on the final corner. Claiming her first podium last week and now her first win, Zakelj was in exuberant mood explaining that the technical mistakes, including a crash over the bars near the end, were due to her inexperience at handling the pressure of leading. None of this took it away from her on a day that proves she’s entering a new level in the big time.
The Men’s race had all the local eyes on Olympic Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy but he struggled for pace at his home event after overcoming recent illness. Despite looking strong in the start he was unable to sustain it and was put firmly out of it with a crash on a rocky descent.
A group of four materialised up front consisting of Schurter, Absalon, Stephan Tempier and Lukas Flückiger until Tempier crashed hard on the jumps in the arena. Flückiger held on valiantly till the final lap and despite a few challenges from behind came in a strong third. The story today was all about two titans of the sport; Nino Schurter, with four world titles to his name, and Julien Absalon who has amassed an unequaled nine. They pushed each other to the limit for the win, every spurt of speed Schurter threw at Absalon, the Frenchman would have an answer for, quickly getting back on his wheel.
On this track full of fast short descents and spiky climbs the full abilities of these two were tested. Swapping positions throughout, Nino held the lead to the top of the last climb giving himself the advantage into the descent where he had been strong all day. But he was kept honest and had to power right to the line. It showed as Schurter lay on the floor after the finish that Absalon had given him a real run for his money, confirmed afterwards as he explained, “It was maybe one of my hardest races ever, especially in the last two laps.”
Where round one threw up a surprise winner in Dan McConnell, round two showed the legends of the sport can raise the game to another level when not hampered by frustrations out of their control. The rising stars are not far behind as some mix it at the sharp end but lead roles remained firmly in the hands of the two big guns today. The favourites are definitely on top form and things can only get hotter as the season continues.
1. Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower) 1:39:33
2. Julien Absalon (BMC Mountainbike Racing Team) 1:39:36 +0:03
3. Lukas Flückiger (BMC Mountainbike Racing Team) 1:40:18 +0:45
4. Thomas Litscher (Multivan Merida) 1:40:35 +1:02
5. Max Plaxton (ShoAir/Cannondale) 1:41:35 +2:02
1. Tanja Zakelj (Unior Tools) 1:25:50
2. Maja Wloszczowska (Giant Pro XC) 1:26:09 +0:19
3. Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro) 1:27:11 +1:21
4. Alexandra Engen (Ghost Factory Racing) 1:27:57 +2:07
5. Eva Lechner (Team Colnago Sudtirol) 1:28:09 +2:19