Last weekend saw three action packed days of hardcore racing as the good and the great from all over the world found the means to dodge the great ash cloud debate to descend on Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire for the opening round of the UCI World Cup.
Events kicked off with a little warm-up in the town centre of Pickering where 55 men and 17 women competed on a tight, twisty eliminator that took them sprinting around the town on the hunt for the £1000 top prize, which included a lots of thrills and a few spills!
Even a few legends of the MTB world were convinced this was a good idea, so spectators were treated to a showdown including Nick Craig, Gary Foord, Thomas Frishknecht and Rune Hoydahl. Despite a good showing from lots of British contenders including juniors Kenta Gallagher and Steve James, no GB rider made it to the final,which was convincingly carried off by Thomas Litscher.
Saturday saw the juniors crank into action around the 6km course. Conditions were near perfect with hardly a breath of wind and not a cloud in the sky, ideal for tackling a course that commanded total concentration. The crowds were delighted and a huge cheer reached the skies when GB rider Steve James roared into view leading the race in the opening laps.
However it was Dutch Champion Michiel Van Der Heijden who proved the stronger opponent as he rode effortlessly away from the head of the race leaving James to battle for 2nd with Jens Schuermans. James was unable to match the pace of his rival and in the closing stages drifted off his wheel but still arrived home in a crowd pleasing 3rd spot to grab a podium position.
To say James was delighted would probably be an understatement, talking to him after the event, the buzzing youngster related how he just rode his own race, settling into his race plan has discussed and it went like a dream, delivering a result that he and his family were incredibly excited about.
Fast forward to Sunday and with the fine performances of the GB juniors on home soil now in the bag the gauntlet was down for our elite riders to produce similar results. To start with conditions were looking a bit damp with a typical Yorkshire downpour looking to set the scene. Riders weren’t at all fazed by this turn of events, in fact they were delighted that the dust would now be less of a problem then they first anticipated.
However by the time the women’s elite race got underway conditions were definitely improving with glimmers of blue sky and not a drop of the wet stuff. Within yards of the women’s race starting the first major pile-up occurred, leaving riders at the rear of the field at even more of a disadvantage. Then, just minutes later another crash caused further problems, but by this time the leading echelon was long gone.
Heather Irminger led the race out with fellow American Willow Koerber close behind along with Eva Lechna and world Champion Irina Kalentieva. Koerber soon pushed to the front smoothly taking on Worry Gill and Medusa’s Drop, quickly opening up a gap. Her solo attempt was short lived as Kalentieva was on her like a hawk.
As the race unfolded it was Koerber who seemed to be doing all the work with Kalentieva sticking glue like to her rear wheel. On the final lap the world Champion made her move opening up a gap of a handful of seconds that proved enough to hand her victory, Koerber trailed home in 2nd just 11 seconds adrift and a hard chasing Katherine Nash bagged third another 17 seconds down. GB hopes were firmly pinned on youngster Annie Last and team mate Lily Mathews.
In the opening laps Matthews was looking strong, but ultimately faded as the race progressed to finish in 50th spot. However Last grew increasingly confident as she charged through the field, moving herself with a final all out sprint into 19th spot, but also securing another GB place on the podium with a fine 3rd in the under 23’s race.
Finally it was time for the big guns; Absalon, Schurter, Stander, Naef, just a few of the names on the start grid. For GB watchers the field was littered with a good showing of home grown talent, with Beckingsale, Fletcher and Killeen heading up proceedings for the UK.
On the gun the whole group surged through into Dixon’s Hollow, moving fluidly, seemingly as one entity on the start loop. It was the Swiss that surged to the front with Lukas Fluckinger and Ralph Naef leading the race through onto the first of the proper laps. By lap two Absalon had moved into the commanding seat with Naef and Schurter tucked in behind while a chasing group hung tantalising off the pace by a mere 4 secs behind. By lap 4 of the 6 lap race Burry Stander had crossed the gap to the leaders and had established himself up front, looking the strongest of the trio, putting in all the work to drive the train home. However with just one lap top go that rain for Stander just ran out of steam leaving Schurter and Absalon to fight it out amongst themselves.
As they entered the finishing straight it was neck and neck with nothing to choose, to the roar of the approving crowd they sprinted as if their lives were hanging in the balance, neither giving an inch to his rival, until just a width of a tyre decided the winner. Schurter had once again outsprinted Absalon in what could almost have been an exact replay of their encounter in the World Championships. We later found out that Absalon was riding with a single front ring giving him nowhere to hide in an all out sprint.
In the GB camp, it wasn’t such a great day in the office. Beckingsale came home as first Brit in a disappointing 37th place while Killeen was equally unimpressed with his 51st spot.
The World Cup series now heads off to Houffalize, Belgium for the next round. It’ll be interesting to see if GB can pull some more impressive results out of the bag there too, just watch those guys and girls go.