As the cross country season opener, Albstadt World Cup carried the weight of months of expectations, from racers and fans alike, and mild controversy over the course.
With rain arriving late in the week and no shortage of drama from the expected, and unexpected, stars, the opening round of World Cup XCO left more fans with more unexpected plot twists than the last season of Game of Thrones.
In the men’s racing, favourites faltered, new champions stood tall, and Canadians found plenty of speed on a slippery XCO course in Albstadt, Germany. Especially in the junior HC race, running parallel to the World Cup, and under-23 race, where several of the next generation made an impact on the international scene.
Canadians in Albstadt:
While the least technical course on the XCO circuit might not seem like a course for gnar-savvy Canuck’s to shine, Albstadt once again proved favourable venue. Last year, Sandra Walter broke into the top-20. This year, it was two Norco Factory Team riders making big steps forward. Haley Smith landed her first European World Cup top-10, landing 9th in the women’s race. Shortly after, Peter Disera slogged through fresh rain to end up 19th in the men’s race.
Catharine Pendrel rode much of the race with Smith, finishing 12th. While Batty started her 2019 season similarly to her 2018, landing in 28th. It might not be what fans expected after the Ontario rider landed four straight podiums and a world championships medal, but Batty’s season was a slow build too.
A few spots later, Jenn Jackson moved well up through the field to finish 31st, while Sandra Walter finished 32nd.
Cindy Montambault finished 58th and Rebecca Beaumont 60th, rounding out the Canadian entries in the women’s field.
Andrew L’Esperance was the next Canadian man to cross the line after Disera’s 19th place, finishing 54th in the massive men’s field. Raphaël Gagné and Léandre Bouchard followed in 72nd and 73rd, with Marc-Andre Forter in 97th.
Women’s XCO Albstadt: New sheriff in town
Annika Langvad had won the opening round of World Cup XCO for four straight years coming into Albstadt, and Jolanda Neff was the reigning World Cup overall winner. At world championships, both had been surprised by the young American, Kate Courtney.
On the slippery German course, Courtney showed no sign of letting up on the pressure. The American world champion attacked from the start, with only Neff able to follow.
Langvad was sitting far back in the pack, drifting to the mid-50’s on the first lap before pulling out of the race.
Up front, Courtney had opened up a gap to Neff, who had also been passed by Anne Tauber, with Yana Belomoina chasing.
Woodwork installed by the organizers to make the course safer was wreaking havoc in the wet weather. First Courtney crashed, then Tauber. The American was able to recover to hold onto her lead, while Tauber started to drift.
Neff passed Tauber on the fourth of five laps, then Belomoina passed her Dutch teammate on the final lap to claim the third spot on the podium.
Courtney was still well off the front of the race, though, and rolled home solo. In winning her first World Cup, she becomes the first American claim a World Cup win since Alison Dunlop in 1999.
The world champion wasn’t alone, though. Fellow American Chloe Woodruff finished sixth. Haley Smith crossed the line ninth, her best ever European World Cup finish – after an eighth in Mont-Sainte-Anne and sixth at world championships last year – making for three North American’s in the top-10. Catharine Pendrel followed close behind in 12th, after riding much of the race with Smith.
Men’s XCO Ablstadt: Mud and mayhem
Nino Schurter and Mathieu van der Poel started the men’s race much as they were expected to, off the front. Schurter attacked from the gun for an early lead, but quickly both the Swiss star and his Dutch rival seemed in trouble. Van der Poel dropped behind a chase group before the end of the long start loop, leaving Schurter on the front with teammate Lars Forster.
Rain was starting to fall, and Schurter has stated publicly that he does not perform at his best in wet, cold conditions. The precipitation immediately caused chaos, causing Lars Forster to fall on a flat grass turn, losing contact with his teammate Schurter. The woodwork that was slick in the women’s race quickly turned treacherous. The world’s best were spinning out climbing it, and tip toeing down the massive wood structures installed by the race organizers for safety before the race.
By the end of lap 1, Matthias Flueckiger had caught up to his fellow Swiss rider, dragging a group of five to the front of the race. The rain continued to pour down. Peter Disera was up to 15th.
Half way through the race, the sun was back, but the damage was done. The course remained slick, but the mud was beginning to get thicker. Flueckiger had taken off with Jordan Sarrou in his wheel. Schurter had faded back, giving credence to off-season rumours that the Swiss sensation might not be as dominant this year as he had in the past. After fading in the opening laps, van der Poel had ridden back up to Schurter. After leading early, European champion Lars Forster continued to crash his way through the race, getting back to his feet slower each time.
On the final lap, Flueckiger continued to lead, while van der Poel had caught Sarrou to fight for second. Schurter had faded further a group fighting for fourth.
Flueckiger crossed the line solo, taking his second ever World Cup win. Van der Poel had position going into the finish striaght, and sprinted away from Sarrou to take second and the World Cup leaders jersey. Sarrou equaled his best ever World Cup finish in third. Schurter had dropped further back to sixth.