The most recent UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in La Bresse, France, was the final race that counted toward the nations qualifications for the Olympics. It was also the final race at which riders could qualify for their respective national teams headed to the 2012 London Olympic Games. The day brought of mix of success for some and disappointment for others, especially for those trying to make it on to the super competitive Swiss Olympic team.
The Swiss qualified, as expected, the maximum three men and two women. With former world champion Nino Schurter already having secured one of the three men's spots, two more men's spots were up for grabs. Schurter, who was ill with stomach problems, actually sat out the La Bresse round.
The intense competition for the other two men's spots produced a sort of race within the race, with the Swiss men, including Ralph Näf (Multivan Merida), Florian Vogel (Scott Swisspower), Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Fabien Giger (Rabobank Giant) and Lukas Flückiger (Trek World Racing) battling each other as much as the others for a ticket to London.
Näf seemed the most motivated and rode to secure an Olympic team berth. The Multivan Merida racer went to the front early on and also made a late race bid to catch eventual winner Julien Absalon (Orbea) before he faded back to third place.
"Before the season started, I did not waste a lot of time thinking about the Olympics," said Näf, who had back problems last year and ended his season early. "All I wanted to do is to return to the podium. I did that in Nove Mesto, and so the Olympics came back into my focus."
"Regarding the selection for London's Olympics, I was kind of in the pole position and had a lot to loose. It was a mind game to ride in a lead group with four Swiss guys at times. That's why I decided to attack in the fourth lap in order to lock my grip on third place."
Vogel, Schurter's teammate, also had a good day and made the Olympic team, but it was close. After a mechanical at the Houffalize round and a sixth place in Nove Mesto, the pressure was on in France.
"I was leading a World Cup race for the first time this season. Tough, I had no reason to feel good about it since my biggest competition Flückiger, Näf and Giger were right on my wheel," said Vogel, who rode to a fourth place finish. This time he was the lucky guy. Giger in fifth had two wheel changes due to mechanicals.
"It feels great that at the very end everything comes together in a good way," said Vogel. "The pressure was on ever since I had this mechanical in South Africa - and that's two month ago! I new it is going to be tight. Having Giger's breath on my neck pushed me to the limit. Which was critical on this technical demanding course. It's all over now, so I can look forward to my next big goal: London."
With Sauser in sixth, there were four Swiss racers in the top six. Realizing his Olympic dream is over, marathon world champion Sauser said he would re-focus on the remaining World Cups and the Leadville 100.
Flückiger, in 10th for the day, also missed out after being in the top five earlier in the race.
"It's over. On the long climb on lap 3, I started losing power and I was getting gapped by Fabian Giger, and then Ralf Näf passed me," said Flückiger. "I tried really hard today. I gave everything I had for the first two laps, but then I didn't have enough power on the climbs to stay with the leaders on lap 3. While it's over for the Olympics I'm now going to concentrate on the future World Cups and the World Championships in Austria."
In the women's race, Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago-Südtirol) was similarly disappointed after a lap one crash. She worked her way up to 25th from the 47th she'd fallen to as a result of the crash, but a second crash going downhill at the beginning of lap three ended her chances of a comeback. Due to abrasions and contusions, she was forced to pull out of the race and seek medical treatment for her shoulder.
"Shit happens. There will be no Olympic Games for me this time. The plan now is to reorient and set new goals for the current season," said Schneitter.
Katrin Leumann (Ghost Factory Racing Team) was the top Swiss women's finisher in seventh place while Esther Süss (Wheeler - IXS Team) was 23rd.