Photos and word: Colin Meagher
Four-cross racing is such a crap shoot as to who's gonna take home the big "W". It requires equal doses of skill and luck. On most courses, the hole-shot rider ends up on top of the podium. Houffalize’s course, however, rewards patient and consistent riders giving less advantage to the usually savage hole-shot snipers, and makes for some interesting racing.
Men’s 4X: The early rounds saw typical and predictable action. One surprise guest star was Martin Soderstrom—the European freeride star was a crowd favorite as he humped his way over the various doubles and triples littering the course. However, he did not have the instinct required to advance very far.
Jared Graves, last year's winner, seemed to have an extra set of eyes in the back of his head. He shut down all competition and took the win with little challenges, although even he admitted, "I was pretty nervous in the first few corners of the finals round—I had to really watch my lead there.” The Yeti Fox Shox Factory Race Team rider continued, "It's good to see the time put in training paying off here at the first race."
Men’s 4X Results:
1: Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox Factory Race Team)
2: Tomas Slavik (RSP 4 Cross Racing Team)
3: Michal Prokop (Agang Racing)
4: Roger Rinderknecht
Womens 4X: With Jill Kintner turning her hand to domestic DH racing for the season, and Melissa Buhl finishing up pre-med studies for the year, the door opened for riders usually reserved for the lower podium spots.
Anneke Beerten was the favorite going in, but washed out in turn one of the finals. Jana Horakova got the gate she wanted, and avoided the tangle-up. Horakova took that advantage to her second ever World Cup win.
Women’s 4X Results
1: Jana Horakova
2: Anita Molcik
3: Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center)
4: Anneke Beerten (Suspension Center)
At long last the drought is over—Willow Koerber has revitalized American World Cup Cross Country racing with another second place finish, seizing the World Cup overall Leader's Jersey. In the men's race Jose Hermida was El Jefe, with a late charge that landed him both the lead and the World Cup overall lead for the men.
The cross-country start in Houffalize is perhaps the most brutal start of all of the "classic" XC mountain bike tracks. First there's the staggering field sizes: 105 women and 211 men toed the start line. The large field made for a long staging time, which also made warm-ups more or less useless. Additionally, the race starts with an all-out sprint up a daunting 14% grade. No cakewalk for even the most hardened veterans.
Women’s XC: The women were on deck first with a 10:45 am start time. The front row was a stacked field with the Willow Koerber, Irena Kalentieva, Julie Bresset, Katrin Leumann, Marie-Helene Premont and the entire Luna team on the front row. These are model citizens in their respective countries, but put 'em in a bike race and it's not sugar and spice anymore. Oh, no; they want the win. And so does everyone behind them.
In an amazingly tight race, Gary Fisher/Subaru rider Willow Koerber saw the victory barely slip through her fingers.
From the get go, Koerber was in the mix, finishing the start lap in fourth position, fifteen seconds back from eventual winner Eva Lechner of Italy, with Elisabeth Osl and Margarita Fullana also making the split from the rest of the field. Over the next few laps, Koerber slowly moved up to the lead position. On lap four however, Koerber’s slipped up a bit. A resurgent Lechner slipped by at the start of a nasty climb by the four cross track, and Koerber buzzed her tire coming out of a corner. The loss of momentum put Koerber off her bike and forced her to run until the grade eased off enough for a remount. It proved to be an insurmountable gap.
"That was what cost me the win," said Koerber after the race. "But this
(overall leader) jersey weighs nothing on my shoulders right now. I am beyond stoked!"
Women’s XC Results:
1: Eva Lechner (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol)
2: Willow Koerber (Subaru-Gary Fisher)
3: Elisabeth Osl (Central Pro Team)
4: Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour)
5: Esther Suss
14: Georgia Gould (Luna Pro Team)
18: Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Gary Fisher)
23: Mary McConneloug
Men’s XC: In the men's five-lap race, the start was marred by a crash that caught a number of the favorites three pedal strokes into the race.
"That was bullshit", commented an anonymous third row racer in a thick Swiss-German accent. "You'd think by now, those guys in front would have their shit figured out. It's not like this is their first race, you know?"
With the favorites either caught in the crash, having mechanical issues (both pre-race favorites had issues in the first lap: Julien Absalon flatted while Burry Stander rolled a tire), Manuel Fumic of Cannodale Factory Racing took the bit in his teeth and ran. Hot on his heels, though were a hungry contingent of up-and-comers and veterans: Mathias Fluckiger, Wolfram Kurschat, Sergio Mantecon Gutierrez, and Rudi Van Houts.
Lurking a few more positions back, was one Jose Antonio Hermida Ramos, a wolf in sheep's clothing. Fumic's always been a top-notch guy, but he's not really known as a podium threat. Hermida Ramos on the other hand, has won a few rodeos in his day, and as he started feeling his legs—"I am not a fast starter", admitted the Spaniard after the race—he started feeling "it". "It" being the potential for a win.
"Really it was in lap three when I start to think to myself, 'maybe I can do this'. But I have no idea where I am in the field, so I start working my way up," explained Hermida Ramos after the race. "At the tech zone on lap four, I am like 'who's in front of me?' and then I start thinking, Fumic? Okay, how does he race? Usually not so good in the final lap. But I usually have a really strong last lap. So at the start of that steep climb at the beginning of the last lap, I attacked, and he could not hold me."
Fumic was by no means disappointed.
"For me, Houffalize is a classic," stated the Cannondale rider. To win here would be a dream, but to take second is more than satisfying. For sure, a win would be better, but Jose, he was stronger today. I am content with second."
Men’s XC Results:
1: José Antonio Hermida Ramos (Multivan Merida Biking Team)
2: Manuel Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing)
3: Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon Racing Team)
4: Jaroslav Kulhavy (Rubena – Birell -Specialized Cycling Team)
5: Ralph Naef (Multivan Merida Biking Team)
26: Todd Wells (Specialized Factory Racing)
38: Samuel Schultz (Subaru-Gary Fisher)
63: Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher)