Spring is definitely in the air when white blossoms crowd the hawthorn branches on the parcours and hundreds of avid mountain bike fans descend on the tiny hamlet of Houffalize, deep in the Ardennes forest, in Belgium but close enough to break Andy Schleck’s windows in neighbouring Luxembourg with a well-aimed stone.
‘Houff’ was reinstated this year after a hiatus which saw XCO style racing in Dalby Forest but rightfully regained it’s position as the ‘Wembley of XC’ for 2012 with an all-new course, a new format to replace the 4X in XCE (although the 4X ProTour that has risen from the ashes of the World Cup event manages to retain a toe hold for the gate starters and put on a Saturday night show under floods).
Anyone hoping for the classic Houffalize track was to be disappointed. This is modern mountain bike racing. Courses are shorter, racing is faster, places to rest and recoup are few and far between. There is no hiding. The long blood-in-spit road start up the Cote de St Roch had gone as the new course was all located on the northern side of the River Ourth.
Instead riders lost their lungs on the steep sprint to the plateau where the majority of the course was laid out – albeit like a monster cyclocross track complete with frites vans. Here it twisted and turned between the tapes before dropping off down the various technical sections and climbing up again with uncompromising regularity.
Biggest and baddest of the descents is the “Moulin Bock” where a swathe of forest has been cut and a sinewy singletrack carved into the resulting bare rock and soil. The section is taped wide, about 50 metres wide leaving riders plenty of line options and spectators with lots of potential for skin-removing crashes. The pitch gets steeper towards the bottom and placed at the end of the lap saw riders struggling with fatigue and bike control or the lack thereof.
After the experiment that was the XCE – three different formats in three races; street, flat grass and hill climb (Britain’s Annie Last won by the way) – Sunday broke at a good and cold two degrees. The women probably raced harder than usual just to keep warm and no surprises as current World Champ Catherine Pendrel reeled in the field with her superior handling talents to take the flowers and kisses. Our own Tracy Mosley, who is racing the first three World Cup XCO’s, could’ve matched her in the tech if only the Canadian didn’t ride so damn fast uphill!
There were no surprises in the men’s race, but that didnʼt make it any less exciting. Nino Schurter pulled away with Julien Absalon and the two went at it like a couple of old sparring partners; the boxer vs the puncher, 26 v 650B, France v Switzerland. Class and experience won out in the end.
Absalon seems to an adopted son in Houffalize and drew a huge roar from the crowds as he crossed the line. But he didn’t garner the most post race attention. That was reserved for the ‘King of Belgium’, cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys who rolled home in 33rd place to give interviews just as the last notes of La Marseillaise drifted off downstream. XCO still rules the roost.