The 22 year-old "Downunder Dynamo," Cadel Evans (AUS), took the second World Cup series title of his brilliant young career in a fast race that was dominated by the world champion, Christophe Dupouey (FRA).
Dupouey, after first having a mediocre start to the season and then living the horror of his team's financial collapse, badly needed something to go right for him. At Houffalize today, finally something did. The 31 years-old from Tarbes purged his ghosts on the way to a dramatic win that left his rivals trailing far behind, and his confidence back on high when he needs it most.
With only two weeks until the world championships in Are, Sweden, Dupouey has brought his season's hopes back to life. At the finish he was hold back his tears. "I doubted that I could get back to my winning form. This race is proof that God really exists, because I didn't think it was possible to ride a race like that," he said.
At the start of the race, Dupouey felt he had nothing to lose and threw everything into an opening-lap attack. Amazingly, the tactic paid off and he stayed clear for the entire race, claiming his first victory of the 1999 campaign and bringing his career tally of world cup round wins to six.
He charged to the front of the lead group of riders in the opening lap and tore open a massive 50-second gap before they really realised what was happening. Dupouey was super- fast up the short, steep climbs that punctuate the Houffalize course, and he made up a lot of time on these. "I was surprised to Dupouey was able to make that much time on us on the first couple of laps because I felt like we were going pretty fast," commented Michael Rasmussen (DEN), who finished second at 1'32". He added that "There were some tactics going on the first couple of laps on the road section and no one wanted to do the job there, so he really gained a lot of time on that climb."
At the end of the third lap, Dupouey's lead was as much as two minutes over his pursuers. But chasing him was a gaggle of the world's top riders, and although none were able to even get close to Dupouey, when they started to race for the podium, his lead began to shrink.
Rune Hoydahl (NOR) lead a group that included Rasmussen, Evans, Miguel Martinez (FRA) and Mario Bui (ITA). Both Hoydahl and Bui faded in the closing laps, finishing 8th and 10th, respectively. Martinez couldn't muster an attack on Evans, while another Dane with great late-season form, Jesper Agergaard, recovered from a mid-race flat tire and worked back from 15th after three laps to finish fifth, his career-best.
Evans sealed his second career World Cup title by crossing the line in third at 1'58". Evans is such a competitor that he couldn't just coast in. In the final lap, he charged after Rasmussen and dropped rival Martinez in the process. "That was just the young rider coming out. I wanted to do some racing," said Evans with a grin. "Like in mountain biking, anything can happen. It's a test of the better rider when there's no throw outs (in calculating the overall World Cup points score)."
The World Cup title was almost assured for Evans before the final round. Even if Martinez, who lay second overall, had won today, Evans could have still finished as low as 11th and still take the title. In the end, Evans took the title with 1,421 points and Martinez, fourth at 3'29" back, was second overall for second-straight year with 1,218 points.
It was a frustrating day for the Belgian riders. Roel Paulissen pulled out after one lap with mechanicals. Crowd favorite Filip Meirhaeghe couldn't find his rhythm and crossed the line in 23rd. "I wanted to do something special for the Belgian crowd, but after the first climb I knew it wasn't possible today," said Meirhaeghe, who crossed the line at the same time as teammate, '96 Olympic champion Bart Brentjens (NED). "My main goal was to keep the fifth position in the overall classification. I felt on the first lap I wasn't able to do anything more than that," Meirhaeghe concluded.
More than 22,000 tickets were sold for Sunday's event, making it the best attended event of the season.
Mens World Cup Results / Houffalise, Belgium / XC #8 / Finals
1. DUPOUEY, Christophe (FRA) 2:21:36 2. RASMUSSEN, Michael (DEN) Gary Fisher/Saab 2:23:08 3. EVANS, Cadel (AUS) Volvo/Cannondale 2:23:34 4. MARTINEZ, Miguel (FRA) Full Dynamix 2:25:05 5. AGERGAARD, Jesper (DEN) Be-Obe Team 2:25:33
World Cup Rankings / After 8 events
1. EVANS, Cadel (AUS) Volvo/Cannondale 1421 pts 2. MARTINEZ, Miguel (FRA) Full Dynamix 1218 pts 3. SAUSER, Christoph (SUI) Volvo/Cannondale 1104 pts 4. VAN DOOREN, Bas (NED) Be-One 1027 pts 5. MEIRHAEGHE, Filip (BEL) Mt Dew / Specialized 830 pts