Words: Colin Meagher
It was Julien Absalon's race to lose. He climbs well. He rides technical courses well. He loves mud. And he's so mentally tough that cracking him is not done easily.
This course features climbing, loads of technical, and with the full on biblical torrent, mud like none other.
But Geoff Kabush is also someone who favors technical, wet courses, although he doesn't have the reputation for climbing that Absalon does. However, on his home soil, the Canadian has been known to dig deep and finding something extra. Yesterday was one of those days.
Initially, Ralph Naef towed the bunch up the opening climb. All the big kids were in his wake: Absalon, Jose Hermida, Kabush, Nino Schurter, Sam Schultz (more on him later), Todd Wells, Burry Stander…basically the crew that can rip the legs off most recreational riders without even breathing heavy.
Absalon likes to spend the first lap feeling out the competition, to weed out the weak. Then he starts moving up and attacks just hard enough to open a decent gap, pins it for a few more seconds to tear the heart out of the competition, and then drops back down a notch so he doesn't blow up. That secondary acceleration is what takes the fight out of the rest of the bunch. It's intimidating.
Today, however, was scripted a bit differently. After Absalon took the lead in lap two, Kabush didn't get shook off like the rest of the pack; rather, he was well within striking range. As he bombed down the technical sections on the lower part of the track, he could catch glimpses of Absalon. At the bottom of the main climb heading into lap three, Kabush could see that Absalon only had a 15-second gap on him. Digging a bit deeper, he started working to close the gap. By the top of the climb, he was on Absalon's wheel. Then Absalon blew up a chain on a cross shift and had to run to the tech zone. It was a rare and disastrous mechanical.
As for Kabush? He's not one to screw up an opportunity like that. He was on the gas instantly, looking to extend the gap back to Hermida, Naef, and the rest of the field. It was a smart tactic—by hammering the climbs and the top section, Geoff knew that he could cruise the bottom half of the course and rest for the next climb. It was a winning tactic, as well: Exactly one hour fifty two minutes and thirty nine seconds after the starting gun, Geoff Kabush won his first ever World Cup cross-country race.
A tired, but pleased Jose Hermida crossed the line in second place, +1:31 to Kabush, followed by Ralph Naef (+1:51), Florian Vogel (+2:10) and Lukas Flueckiger (+2:22).
Absalon went from first to 48th before he could get a new chain, but once Absalon had his bike back in working order, he was able to fight his way to 17th, narrowly edging out a hard working Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski.
Despite Absalon's mechanical, Kabush attributed his victory to old-fashioned sweat equity.
"I was feeling super strong," he said. "Absalon's chain blew, and while some will say I got lucky, I feel I could have hung with him today. Everything just lined up: good bike (zero mechanicals), good legs and super support from my crew. When I caught him on the third lap, mid-climb, I still had quite a bit left in the tank. It's impossible to say for sure how it would have ended up had he not blown his chain, but I still think I'd still have won today. I was just feeling it."
Pretty strong stuff, but the results and the lap times speak for themselves.
The top Americans were Todd Wells (ninth), Adam Craig (10th), and JHK (18th). But the big story was Sam "Big Sky" Schultz, who had a breakout race. Almost. Although he finished 39th, Schultz was on pace for a top-10 finish when a flat tire at the point farthest on the course from the tech zone during lap four took him out of contention.
For the Men's World Cup overall title, Absalon is a virtual lock. He could even skip the last two races and still finish in the top five. So the race now is for second place, and that's a tight one, with Burry Stander, Ralph Naef and Jose Hermida, all within 50 points of one another; early season contender Wolfram Kurschat is simply too far back following his dismal North American performances to give them a run for their money, as is Swiss Power's Nino Schurter. Adam Craig and Todd Wells remain the highest ranked Americans (22nd and 23rd, respectively), while Geoff Kabush moves from 14th to seventh place overall with his win, ensuring a front row start in Switzerland next month.