On a Vallnord, Andorra course finally graced with sunshine, top Canadian cross-country riders performed strongly on the last day of UCI world championship contention. In the Elite women’s class, Catharine Pendrel, the defending world champion, finished fifth, while Emily Batty took seventh — somewhat reversing roles the two played at the Toronto Pan Am Games. In the Elite men’s competition, meanwhile, Raphael Gagne finished 18th.
Not surprisingly, it was titans seen on many mountain bike podiums this season who held on for the win, with Switzerland’s Nino Schurter and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France taking the 2015 men’s and women’s titles, respectively.
Throughout the week’s competition, driving, soaking rain marred the course for most other classes, with U23 riders on Friday having a particularly rough go of it. As if book-ending the whole event, the sun finally emerged from behind the clouds for Saturday’s Elite races, but it ultimately didn’t do much good for the terrain. After so many days of being heavily saturated, the course was still precariously slippery and frustratingly muddy, throwing one last arduous challenge — to put it mildly — under the tires of competing riders.
For Ferrand-Prevot, the larger achievement of her win made the challenging backdrop only too appropriate.
The French rider’s cross-country victory is her fourth UCI title, with three others across as many disciplines: the Elite cyclocross title, the Elite road title, and the team relay title in mountain bike, all of which she currently holds. Other riders, of course, made her earn the achievement. From the beginning, Neff took the lead on the first climb, but was soon eclipsed by Ferrand-Prevot and Catharine Pendrel when the Swiss rider lost steam on the hard, high-elevation terrain. Pouring it on hard during the second lap, Ferrand-Prevot broke away, maintaining an advantage that would last through the rest of the competition.
For Pendrel, her suspicions about riders to watch out for at today’s competition turned out to be prophetic. Locking down second place until the fourth lap, Polish rider Maja Wloszczowska, Russia’s Irina Kaletyeva and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa of Norway — all athletes she described to Canadian Cycling Magazine as being on her radar — caught up with Pendrel, with an attack by Kaltyeva dropping her back. The Canadian rider fought hard to get back into the lead group, but by the time the race reached its sixth lap, Pendrel was caught by Yana Belomoina of Ukraine. The results left Kaletyeva behind Ferrand-Prevot taking silver, and Belomoina earning bronze.
With her tireless fifth-place finish, though, Pendrel qualifies for competition in Rio in 2016. Also riding for Canada was Sandra Walter in 27th place, while Mikaela Kofman, having come down sick, didn’t start.
That was one of the craziest MTB races I have done. So slick and tight battles. Proud of a top 5 finish and qualification for #rio2016!!!
— Catharine Pendrel (@cpendrel) September 5, 2015
In the men’s competition, Nino Schurter blasted into contention about the same way that Neff did for the women: hard, fast and aggressively — and, as always, quickly followed by France’s Julien Absalon, all but Schurter’s nemesis. Early on, Absalon was joined by Ondrej Cink of the Czech Republic, but Cink was dropped after the first lap to battle it out for bronze as part of a trailing chase group with Manuel Fumic of Germany and Mathias Fluckiger of Switzerland. Cink, in the end, was able to gap Fumic after Fluckiger was sidelined with a flat, maintaining enough strength through the hard, slippery ride to hold on for bronze.
As always seems to be the case when Absalon and Schurter are involved, the front of the race was a gigantic swinging pendulum between the strengths of both riders, with the former powering through the climbs and the latter executing stronger descents, exercising fast, white-knuckle precision. By the race’s final muddy stretch, Schurter eked out a seven second lead on Absalon. In the last 150 metres, both riders nearly done in, Schurter rolled to the finish in first place.
Gagne, through it all, was turning in his strongest performance yet at the Elite worlds further behind, with a jackrabbit start in the competition propelling him into 10th place by the third lap. Like with other riders, though, the effort of navigating the wet, slick terrain caught up with Gagne by the end, entrenching him in 18th.
Geoff Kabush placed 42nd at the end of Saturday’s competition. But for Derek Zandstra, whose gearing was shot following a crash, the race ended prematurely when he withdrew.