By Dave McElwaine in Las Vegas
Christoph Sauser (Specialized) and Kelli Emmett (Giant) took top honors at the inaugural edition of the revitalized Cactus Cup stage race in Las Vegas, Nevada, last weekend.
Sauser demonstrated why he is the World Champion by winning the final, 30 mile cross country stage of the Mountain's Edge Cactus Cup. Sam Jurekovic (U-23 National Team), who won stage 2, pushed Sauser at times and finished less than two minutes behind. Carl Decker (Giant) took third place in a sprint finish against Sid Taberlay (Team Shoair), the winner of stages 1 and 3.
Coming as the final stage after an uphill time trial, a super D and a fat tire crit, the cross country used a course consisting of two laps, the first being 18 miles, followed by a 12-mile loop. Riders faced two incredibly difficult sections of trail that they had not seen before in this weekend's racing. The Black Velvet trail in the foothills of the mountains was full of rock, sand, washes, and plenty of tight turns where riders could barely avoid cactus bites. Most who raced on a hard-tail lamented afterwards they had not chosen a dually for the race.
Halfway through the first lap the riders faced the most difficult climb of the week, a trail that locals call 'The Hurl'. The incredibly rocky, switchback-ridden climb rises 600 feet up from the desert floor. On the back is a treacherous descent leading down towards the town of Blue Diamond.
In the final stage, Sauser had a 15 second lead over Jurekovic as the racers approached 'The Hurl'. Generally Sauser's strength is his ability to handle steep climbs, while Jurekovic is more of a power rider who can handle super technical trails.
"My tactic was to stay in second and then before the hill to go ahead and definitely be the first going up that hill," said Sauser. "I would try to make a gap even if it's only 15 seconds because you can then ride your speed and if the other guy is just a little weaker you will gain time.
"The other trail (Black Velvet) was so technical with so many cacti, and I was way ahead so I took it very conservative," he added. "Then I heard a bike noise and said to myself 'Sam is coming' so it put me under pressure again…and then I was full speed ahead."
Behind the front pair, overnight race leader Taberlay and Decker had their own battle going on. The pair came through after one lap together and third place was not decided until they sprinted to the finish.
Jurekovic bested Sauser in both the time trial and super D stages, despite spending six weeks off the bike with a serious injury after July's US national championships. After four stages Jurekovic finished only 53 seconds behind Sauser on general classification. Taberlay finished 3:58 behind Sauser.
"Sauser was in sight the whole time but on every climb he would pull away and I would catch him on the downhill, and on that technical section (Black Velvet) I would catch him a bit," Jurekovic said.
Emmett had little trouble taking the win in the elite women's race over the only other competitor, Maureen Kunz. Emmett won all four stages en route to victory.
In the final race, she led Kunz by one minute as they headed up 'The Hurl'. Both could see one another easily as they traversed the many switchbacks. Emmett added another minute to her lead by the time she rounded the back side of the mountain and started the six mile climb back to the start/finish. At the end of lap one she had increased her lead to eight minutes and cruised to victory on lap two.
"It was super fun," Emmett said. "It was really techy so you were so focused on the rocks and steps that you didn't even notice you were climbing."
Many of the professionals were in town to make appearances for their sponsors at the Interbike Trade Show in Las Vegas this week. Several racers will also be racing in Cross Vegas, one of the first major cyclo-cross races of the season.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the Cactus Cup.