Filip Meirhaeghe had been close before. Three times in his long mountain biking career he’d walked onto the podium at the world mountain bike championships, but all three times he’d not been the winner, twice settling for bronze in the late 1990s, before grabbing silver a year ago after finishing an agonizing 19 seconds behind Canadian Roland Green.
But this time, with Green not a factor and Meirhaeghe on fire again, the Belgian used a stunning charge from outside the top 10 to finally capture that elusive world title.
“I’d had thoughts that I was not meant to win this,” admitted Meirhaeghe. “But now the dream has come true.”
The dream day did not come without its share of drama, though. Caught up in the congestion of a 105-rider field all trying to get to the singletrack, Meirhaeghe found himself in 11th at the end of the first lap around the super-technical, 6.2km course. Up front the home-country fans were in a tizzy as one of their own, 2003 European champion Ralph Näf, was making an early bid for national glory. One lap into the eight-lap race, Näf had a 9-second advantage over Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, with Green and Belgian Roel Paulissen trailing another five seconds back.
But while Green’s stay at the front was short lived, Meirhaeghe was just beginning to make his charge. By the end of lap 2 he was sixth, and a lap later he’d caught Paulissen who’d moved up to second. Hesjedal, meanwhile, was now at the front alone, with Näf falling back to sixth under the pressure of the pace.
For the ensuing two laps it looked like the rainbow jersey might stay right where it’s been the last two years, in Victoria, British Columbia. Though the city’s most-famous cycling resident, two-time defending world champion Green, was struggling and would eventually finish 19th, Hesjedal looked his usual-NORBA-race self, hammering away at the front. He too calls Victoria home.
“I’ve always been able to handle starts like that,” said Hesjedal. “When you feel good there’s no reason not to be at the front.”
But with team support personnel giving him updates, Hesjedal also knew Meirhaeghe was coming. Three times he shot glances over his left shoulder on the course’s arrow-straight paved section, and by the middle of the fifth lap the Belgian had caught him.
The pair would stay together for the rest of the lap, though Hesjedal, out of his saddle and digging on several occasions, was clearly using more reserves.
“The fact that he closed that gap on a course like this just shows how strong he was riding,” Hesjedal said. “There wasn’t a lot of room to pass, so you had to be going really well to get around people.”
The break in the race would come early in the next lap, when Hesjedal lost momentum for just a moment, falling off his bike at the top of one of the many short, technical climbs. It only took him seconds to get going again, but by that time Meirhaeghe was gone.
By the finish he’d put 46 seconds into Hesjedal, winning the 49.3km race in 2:25:02. Paulissen completed the podium, taking third at 1:52.
“I was very nervous until maybe the last 100 meters,” said Meirhaeghe, the first Belgian to win world title in mountain biking. “Now the Olympics are the only goal I have left for my career.”
Hesjedal, meanwhile, let the moment get the best of him initially, tears welling up in his eyes as his team soigneur wiped the dirt off his face. But after a trip to the podium and some time to reflect, the gravity of the race began to sink in.
“There’s still one more spot,” he said. “But it’s a great day for sure.”
He also downplayed the impact of the brief crash that allowed Meirhaeghe his initial advantage. “I don’t think it was that big a deal. If I’d had the legs I could have closed it.” Race Notes
Besides being a great day for Meirhaeghe, Specialized and all the other manufacturers of full suspension cross-country bikes had to be beaming. The Belgian chose his Epic for the race, making it the first full-suspension bike to win a world cross-country title.
Other tech notes on the winner’s bike included a 2003 XTR set-up sans disc brakes. Team wrench David Meirhaeghe (little brother) said that Meirhaeghe simply doesn’t like the feel of disc brakes. Meirhaeghe also ran Crank Brothers Ti egg beater pedals, a Rock Shox SID World Cup with carbon crown and remote lockout, and Specialized tubeless tires with “more Stan’s [tire sealant] that usual because the course was so rough,” according to David Meirhaeghe.
Hesjedal chose his Gary Fisher hardtail, but was running the full 2003 XTR set-up including disc brakes. Paulissen was on his full-suspension Cannondale Scalpel with disc brakes and a carbon Lefty with remote lockout.
Tough luck for Sauser
At the end of six laps, Swiss native Christoph Sauser looked to be in good position for the second world’s bronze of his career. But a rear puncture early in the seventh lap derailed those hopes. According to Sauser, initially he “lost his quickfill and had to look for it on the ground.” The mishap cost him 11 places, as he ended up 14th at 8:32.
North American recap
Behind Hesjedal, Canadian Chris Sheppard was the top North American, placing 16th at 8:41. Green was next in 19th at 10:01, with American Jeremiah Bishop the only other rider in the top 25, 22nd at 10:49.
“I didn’t have anything today,” lamented Green. “No power whatsoever.”
Bishop was a little happier. “Considering where I started from it wasn’t that bad,” said Trek rider who was the 84th rider called up to the start line.
WORLD MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIP; LUGANO, SWITZERLAND; SEPTEMBER 3-9; CROSS-COUNTRY; MEN; 1. Filip Meirhaeghe (B), 49.3km in 2:25:02; 2. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), at 0:46; 3. Roel Paulissen (B), at 1:52; 4. Ralph Näf (Swi), at 2:41; 5. Bas Peters (Nl), at 2:51; 6. Cédric Ravanel (F), at 3:02; 7. Kashi Leuchs (NZ), at 4:34; 8. Lado Fumic (G), at 6:04; 9. Bart Brentjens (Nl), at 6:25; 10. Martino Fruet (I), at 6:44
OTHER NORTH AMERICANS; 16. Chris Sheppard (Can), at 8:41; 19. Roland Green (Can), at 10:01; 22. Jeremiah Bishop (USA), at 10:49; 28. Geoff Kabush (Can), at 13:10; 31. Peter Wedge (Can), at 13:58; 42. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (USA), at –1 lap; 55. Ziranda Madrigal (Mex), at –2 laps; 57. Andreas Hestler (Can), -2 laps; 58. Carl Decker (USA), at –2 laps; 64. Salvador Barriga (Mex), at –2 laps; 68. Mathieu Toulouse (Can), -3 laps; 69. Jimi Mortenson (USA), -3 laps; 70. Michael Broderick (USA), -3 laps; 79. Carl Swenson (USA), -4 laps; — Seamus McGrath (Can), DNF