Set in the Ourthe Valley in Belgium's Ardennes hills, the 9.6-km Houffalize course was shortened by 2km from its last appearance on the World Cup circuit in 1997.
Even in its shortened length, many complained the course was a bit boring and didn't bring the race into the town nearly enough to excite the thousands who lined the finish line area.
But the Houffalize venue has been an important stop on the international MTB tour since the late Eighties, and along with Mont-Sainte-Anne it is the nearest thing mountain biking has to a classic event.
The course is fast and not terribly technical by today's standards. Several short, steep climbs over the rough hills make it a good course for strong climbers and riders who can find something for the punch.
Each lap starts with a dash through the centre of Houffalize followed immediately by a steep climb of some 90m, up a paved road to the Bois des Moines. Then comes the famous steep, tight descent into the Fosse d'Outh, which is immediately followed by the steepest climb at St. Roch, a climb through the woods of nearly 120m. The course then plunges back into town, from where it makes a short climb into a wooded section, then it drops back to the river. The final two kilometers take the riders up and down two steep climbs and descents and the finish line is one of the very few on the Diesel-UCI World Cup circuit that is set in a town centre.
It was a close call for Alison Sydor (CAN), but the great rider won her third UCI Mountain Bike World Cup title in a climactic end to the series. The race at Houffalize was won by the bird-like Margarita Fullana (ESP), who claimed her third World Cup round victory of the season and by doing so deprived second-placed Gunn-Rita Dahle (NOR) of the points needed to overtake Sydor in the overall competition.
From her first withering attack late on lap one, Fullana, 27 from Mallorca, controlled the race. Dahle was quick to respond to the Spaniard's attack, but starting lap two, the Norwegian trailed by 15 seconds. Fullana continued her big push and by the end of lap two was 45 seconds clear. In the closing kilometers her lead increased and she crossed the line jubilantly waving the Spanish flag (with a Specialized decal prominently in the middle), 1'17" ahead of Dahle. "I attacked very hard in the first lap and then again in the second... I wanted to win today very much. I thought nothing about the world championships or anything else. I only wanted to win."
1999 has been Fullana's best season to date, and makes one wonder what might have happened if she had planned her season otherwise. Entering only four of the eight races in the series, she entered the series in round Three at El Escorial, and took the first world cup round win of her career. Two weeks later, at St Wendel she finished outside the top 15, but bounced back with another win in Plymouth one week later. Fullana then skipped rounds six and seven in North America, and returned to the World Cup circuit here at Houffalize. "To win in Spain was like a dream. And then in England I was on a cloud. Now I know I can win and I want to win more," she said.
The rough and tumble Houffalize course clearly suited Fullana's repertoire. A nimble climber, who is feared as much in road racing as on the mountain bike, she danced up the short, steep pitches that give the Houffalize course its Ardennes flavour. But besides a few steep pitches and some exposed roots, technical challenges are relatively few and far between at Houffalize, which was just fine for Fullana, who has not yet come far enough from her road racing background to acquire the excellent bike handling skills of riders such as Sydor and Dahle.
Dahle, who felt she might be a little flat after finishing ninth overall in the 14-stage Grand Boucle Feminine road race in August, couldn't match Fullana's climbing speed. "I started to go for the gold, but even in the first lap I knew I didn't feel good. It wasn't my day. I didn't have the touch I had in Canmore," said Dahle, whose win at the freezing race in Canada was her only world cup victory of the season.
When Fullana rode clear on lap one, the battle between Sydor and Dahle for the World Cup win did not end. Sydor admits her weakness is training too hard and not resting enough. With the world championships just two weeks away, it could have been this that caused her to have an off day, while Dahle looked a lot better than she said she felt. The Norwegian started the race needing to score 100 points more than the Canadian to claim the crystal globe. A second place finish for Dahle would have left Sydor requiring 5th place points to avoid losing the series she has led since round two.
While Sydor was below her best, some other riders at Houffalize looked very strong. Barbara Blatter (SUI) unwittingly helped Dahle's cause by having her best race of the series. Although strong in the early part of the race, the first-year pro faded in the middle laps as the tenacious Sydor moved past her, into third place. But Blatter recovered and attacked early in the final lap, putting more than 20" into Sydor who finished fourth.
Not far behind Sydor for much of the race were other big names, including the Olympic and two-times world champion Paola Pezzo (ITA), other potential threats were Chantal Daucourt (SUI) and Caroline Alexander (GBR). Yet none of them went close enough to be a serious threat to Sydor's World Cup ambitions.
After the race, a relieved looking Sydor said it was the hardest World Cup season she has ever had. With a new scoring structure in which every result in the series counts towards the overall score, the stiff season-long challenge from Dahle made it hard work. "This year I won two races and never finished less than fourth, but the whole season came down to like one minute," said Sydor, and added: "When you have the competition with the likes of Gunn-Rita, this makes it my most satisfying World Cup victory."
Sydor, 33, comes from Vancouver. She has won three world championships (1994, '95, '96), 16 world cup rounds, and the silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. She began a road racing career in 1987 and then switched to mountain biking in 1991. She rides for the Volvo-Cannondale team, which is mountain biking's number one ranked trade team.