Christoph Sauser finally has his rainbow stripes.
After four years of riding in the shadow of Frenchman Julien Absalon, Sauser took an emotional cross-country win at Val di Sole, Italy. The rail-thin Swiss star crushed the men’s field, soloing to a 2:54 margin of victory over compatriot Florian Vogel. Ralph Naf’s third-place ride capped of a day of Swiss dominance.
For Sauser, the win dispatched a weight that had been on his back for 14 years.
Sauser owns a world title in marathon cross-country racing, but before today had never won cross-country stripes — not as an elite, espoir or junior rider. Since 1994 he has finished inside the top 10 at worlds eight times, three times second. Many wondered if the lanky Swiss rider, who turned 32 earlier this year, would be remembered as the Dan Marino of mountain biking.
But on a day that saw four-time champ Absalon wilt in the soaring afternoon heat, Sauser was more like John Elway.
“I can’t really explain it at the moment, how I feel,” said the beaming Swiss. “It is a different sensation from the [marathon] win.”
Sauser and Vogel sprung to the front of the men’s race on the opening lap, quickly building a gap on second-place rider Fredrik Kessiakoff of Sweden. The Swede eventually joined the duo on the second lap, but could did not hold the wheel long, and the effort eventually sent him back into 5th place.
Absalon, who owns more world championship wins than any man in history, looked sluggish on the opening laps and chased 30 seconds in arrears. Every time the Frenchman ate into the Swiss’ lead, Sauser went to the front to retain the time. But on lap five, Sauser’s efforts dispatched Vogel for good.
Behind the duo, Naf was mounting a solo charge through the remainder of the field. The young Swiss is on the bubble to make his country’s Olympic team, and nothing short of a win would guarantee his chances to make Beijing. Naf was caught out by the speedy start and rode in the teens until beginning his late charge forward. While spinning through the feed zone on the fifth lap, the Swiss man dumped a full bottle of water on his helmet, banged his head with his fist and let out a war cry.
“In the beginning I was suffering and really on the limit,” Naf said. “Making the Olympics was very important, I am under big pressure from my team.”
On the penultimate lap, the surging Naf caught Absalon. The Frenchman had blown his top and was struggling to ascend the course’s steep climb.
“I was really surprised to see Julien, and I think it was tough for him to know he was going to lose his jersey,” Naf said. “To see him struggling, to see he can have a bad day, that makes him seem very human.”
The Frenchman pulled the plug shortly after being passed.
In the final two laps the men’s field underwent a serious re-shuffling as the fast starters faded and the more conservative riders pulled their way forward. American Todd Wells, who was caught out by the quick start, advanced his way up to 15th, the top North American. Canadian Geoff Kabush was one spot behind. Dutchman Rudi Van Houts, who needed to finish inside the top-12 to make the games, pulled his way into 12th. And Brits Oliver Beckinsale and Liam Killeen snuck their way into the top-10.
For Killeen, who eventually finished fourth, the result marked a two-year struggle to regain his form after battling chronic fatigue in 2007.
“Mont-Ste-Anne two years ago was the last time I felt this good, it’s usually the end of June when I feel good,” Killeen said. “It’s doing amazing things for my confidence.”
Killeen finished second at Mont-Ste-Anne in 2006 after riding much of the race on the heels of his then-new teammate Sauser. Now, two years later, the Brit knew that his Swiss counterpart had finally found his goal.
“This is great for Christoph, I’m sure he’s very proud,” Killeen said. “He should have a lot of confidence going into Beijing.”
Fullana takes third title
Less than one year after she was sent home from worlds due to a high hematocrit, Spanish cross-country racer Margarita Fullana climbed her way to victory at the 2008 UCI bike championships. The wiry Spaniard, who is pushing 40, flew out the gates with her traditional fast start, and was eventually joined by German Sabine Spitz, Canadian Marie-Héléne Prémont and reigning champ Irina Kalentieva of Russia.
But Fullana went to the whip on the climbs, and systematically dropped her rivals on the course’s steep uphills. Prémont was first to fade, followed a lap later by Kalentieva. The tiny Russian repeatedly caught up on the course’s descents, but could not hold her own on the ascents. By lap four of six, only Spitz remained. Fullana made quick work of the powerful German on the penultimate loop.
“It is a dream come true, it was a great race,” said the Spaniard. “The course was very challenging.”
The win vaults Fullana back to the pinnacle of the sport she dominated during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Fullana took an amazing 12 World Cup wins from 1999-2002, and took home the rainbow stripes in ’99 and 2000. She all-but disappeared from international competition from 2003-04, but returned in 2006. Last season she won the World Cup in Champéry, Switzerland. On May 31 of this year she took a World Cup win in Andorra.
An air of suspicion hung over Fullana when it was announced just days before the ’07 world championships that the Spanish rider had been deemed “unfit” to compete because her hemaetocrit — the percentage of red cells present in her blood — was above the UCI’s maximum 50-percent level.
Fullana eventually told the Spanish press that medicine for her recently broken arm had boosted her blood cell count. In Val di Sole, the Spaniard fought off questions about the incident.
“I am not here to talk about last year,” Fullana said at a post-race press conference. “I have nothing to hide. I have given my [test] sample.”
Spitz’ second-place finish matched her result from 2007, when she chased eventual winner Irina Kalentieva in Fort William. While disappointed, Spitz said she would have to live with silver.
“Sometimes you have the feeling this could be your day, and I had the feeling yesterday,” Spitz said. “Everything fit. My legs felt so good and I had the feeling I could do it today. But you have to accept today another girl was stronger.”
The bronze was a major disappointment for Kalentieva, who realized early she lacked the legs to climb with the Spaniard on the course’s steep ups. The thin-armed Russian said gauged her efforts to hang on, but eventually the elastic broke. Adding insult to injury, Kalentieva crashed hard on her head after a photographer’s long camera lens smacked her in the face on a technical descent.
“I hurt my arm, and I could not work my brakes, it was terrible,” Kalentieva said. “I am satisfied that I have taken a medal, but now I have a headache.”
Behind the three, Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, the reigning Olympic champion, pulled her way up into seventh place. Flesjå battled with Fullana through much of the late 1990s and saw the Spaniard when she was at her best. Now 35, Dahl Flesjå said she no longer suspects Fullana of any wrongdoing.
“I don’t speculate with such things, if you do so you have lost before you get to the start line,” Dahle Flesjå said. “I believe it was a fair fight today. She is two years older than me and she has won, that is great motivation to me.”
- Sauser raced on a brand new bike, the 2009 Specialized S-works Epic. The Swiss rider helped design the rig, which is reportedly 700 grams lighter than the previous model, has Brain technology in the fork. “It flew like a fighter jet and descended like a 747 — always on the line,” Sauser said.
- Olympic hopefuls from the United States and Canada competed in their last of six selection races. The Olympic picture for both nations is clear: Todd Wells, who finished 15th, and Georgia Gould, the 9th place finisher, will grab the United States’ two automatic spots. Adam Craig rolled across in 45th and Mary McConneloug finished 20th, and will likely be the discretionary choices. For Canada, Marie-Héléne Prémont finished fourth and Catherine Pendrel finished sixth, securing their Olympic berths. Geoff Kabush was 16th and Seamus McGrath crossed the line in 24th. Since no other man finished in the top-16, they are the only two to meet Canada’s Olympic criteria and will go to Beijing.
- Despite his bronze medal, Naf will likely not be selected by the Swiss federation for Beijing. Nino Schurter’s win in the U23 world championships and his two World Cup podiums shine as better results.
- In his final world championships, Swiss icon Thomas Frischknecth finished in 27th place, moving up from his 41st starting position. The Swiss is the only active rider to have raced every worlds since the inaugural race in 1990 in Durango, Colorado.
“It’s awesome to have three Swiss men on the podium, but it’s sad we only have three spots for the Olympics,” Frischknecth said. “think anyone on a start line deserves to be at the Olympics. I think the IOC should give Ralph Naf a wild card.”
- The hot race whittled down the men’s field, and more than a few strongmen wilted. Absalon, Jose Hermida, Jean-Christoph Peraud, Manuel Fumic, Luckas Fluckiger, Sven Nys, Sid Taberlay and Max Plaxton were a few of the unlucky riders to see their day end early.
- Downhiller legend Steve Peat was an impromptu guest at the post-race press conference, asking Sauser if he would celebrate his victory by performing the moonwalk. Sauser admitted he had never heard of Michael Jackson’s dance move.
2008 UCI world championships
Val di Sole, Italy
1. Christoph Sauser (Swi), 1:58:26
2. Florian Vogel (Swi), at 2:54
3. Ralph Naf (Swi), at 4:19
4. Liam Killeen (GB), at 4:42
5. Fredrik Kessiakoff (S), at 4:47
6. Christoph Soukup (Aut), at 5:07
7. Roel Paulissen (B), at 5:39
8. Inaki Lejarreta (Sp), at 6:04
9. Moritz Milatz (G), at 6:51
10. Oliver Beckinsale (GB), at 7:15
15. Todd Wells (USA), at 8:09
16. Geoff Kabush (Can), at 8:15
24. Seamus McGrath (Can), at 10:17
45. Adam Craig (USA), at 16:56
49. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, at one lap
56. Barry Wicks, at one lap
68. Michael Broderick, at two laps
71. Sam Schultz, at two laps
1. Margarita Fullana (Sp), 1:39:01
2. Sabine Spitz (G), at 1:43
3. Irina Kalentieva (Rus), at 2:20
4. Marie-Héléne Prémont (Can), at 2:51
5. Maja Wloszczowska (Pl), at 3:45
6. Catherine Pendrel (Can), at 4:51
7. Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja (Nor), at 5:16
8. Elisabeth Osl (Aut), at 5:29
9. Georgia Gould (USA), at 6:18
10. Blaza Klemencic (Slo), at 6:37
Other North Americans
19. Lea Davison (USA), at 10:03
20. Mary McConneloug (USA), at 10:26
29. Heather Irmiger (USA), at 13:16
35. Kiara Bisaro (Can), at 15:18
40. Willow Koerber (USA), at 18:42
47. Kelli Emmett (USA), at one lap