China's Ren Chengyuan wins her first World Cup
By Rob Jones
The first cross country round of the 2007 UCI World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium, brought together top riders from all parts of the globe and provided a glimpse of who's going fast early. The international season opener brought some new and different faces to the podium's top step in the men's and women's races.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Ren Chengyuan, a Chinese woman who beat the almost unbeatable Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida). Over the past few years, the Chinese women have been steadily climbing the ranks on the world circuit, and Chengyuan showed she has reached the top. Her teammate Jingjing Wang also finished fifth - an indication that the Chinese women will have a strong and deep team going into their home-turf Olympics in 2008 in Beijng.
Marga Fullana (Spiuk-Tau Ceramica), reveling in the heat, the climbs and the lack of technical sections, bolted off the front in the women's four lap race. She was marked by Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida), Ren Chengyuan (China) and Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Haywood), the two-time World Cup winner last year in her first race so far this year.
Fullana and Dahle-Flesjaa traded places the first few laps, with Chengyuan just a few seconds behind. Sabine Spitz (Ghost international) was chasing solo at one minute, with Premont dropping back. By the start of the final circuit, Dahle-Flesjaa and Chengyuan had caught and dropped the Spanish rider. Spectators were witnessing something unusual - Dahle-Flesjaa was not out on her own, cruising to another victory. The duo came through the final corner onto the finishing straight with Chengyuan a few metres in front of a disappointed world champion. Chengyuan crossed the line first, with a small smile and raising her arms briefly to mark her historic win.
"Second is not too bad at a World Cup," noted Dahle-Flesjaa. "The problem is that people expect me to always win, and that is not possible. I did my best, I had to fight all day for this position. It is not surprising to me that the Chinese riders did so well here because they get better and better every year."
Hermida sets up for strong 2007
Although World and World Cup champion Julien Absalon was the clear favorite going into the World Cup opener, another rider would stand on the top step of the podium, José Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida).
After local Belgian favourite and former Houffalize winner Roel Paulissen (Cannondale-Vredestein) suffered a mechanical that would drop him from an initial leading spot to an ultimate fourth place, Hermida, Absalon and perennial fast starter Fredrik Kessiakoff (Cannondale-Vredestein) soon separated themselves from the rest of the field.
Hermida had 30 seconds advantage over Absalon by lap two and 45 seconds by the end of lap three. Absalon caught him back, when Hermida had a stuck chain and later had to pull his bike from underneath the lead moto after it crashed and took out Hermida, too.
"When I looked at my bike, it was under the moto, so I thought that was it, but the spectators pulled the moto off my bike and it was okay," said Hermida, who did not give up and attacked Absalon on the downhills, eventually opening a gap he would hold until the end.
Hermida said, "I didn't expect to win today, it was the sort of day you always dream of having, and to have it here in Houffalize - I have always dreamed of winning here, so words cannot properly describe it."