By Steve Medcroft and Rob Jones
Thick mud and constant drizzle bathed the ridiculously-large 250 men and 100 woman fields at the UCI World Cup in Spa Francourchamps, Belgium last weekend. The conditions tormented favorites and pack-fill alike but for the second weekend in a row, current World and Olympic champions Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan-Merida) and Julien Absalon (Bianchi-Agos) triumphed.
Dahle-Flesjaa has now earned a perfect 750 world cup points in the three races held this season so far and opened a 260-point gap over second placed Sabine Spitz (Specialized). Absalon now has a 225-point lead over Bart Brentjens (Giant).
With the field counts so high and conditions forcing racers to run long sections, most of the final selections were made in the first lap of the 5.5-kilometer circuit. The riders headed from the start up a climb on the famed Formula One track and straight out for almost two kilometres before swinging onto the course for the descent back to the start.
After a road-race start, Dahle-Flesjaa made it into the singletrack first and spent the rest of the race opening the gap over her challengers. She ended up more than two minutes in front of Irina Kalentieva (Topeak-Ergon). Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) recovered from a poor start to move into third, just ahead of Sabine Spitz (Specialized), Lene Byberg (Bikin' Cyprus International) and Nina Gohl (Multivan Merida).
In the men's race, the huge field clamored for position at the start. Filip Meirhaeghe (Versluys) and Ralph Naef (Multivan Merida) managed to enter the singletrack at the front of a very long line, with Absalon, Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), Roel Paulissen (Giant) and round one winner Bart Brentjens (Giant) just behind.
Missing from this front group were three key riders: Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Liam Killeen (Specialized) and Thomas Frischknecht (Swisspower). All three are strong in muddy and technical conditions. All three were caught out by the start, with Sauser going down and Frischknecht tangling wheels with another rider. Frischknecht dropped out of the race in frustration and Killeen, who has shown impressive form in the early season (Commonwealth Games and Sea Otter wins and sixth in Madrid), finished 22nd. More impressively, Sauser crawled his way back within sight of the lead group before double flats knocked him back down to seventh.
Absalon and Naef eventually worked themselves free of the lead group. The World Champion opened a comfortable 30-second gap on Naef in the final lap to win the race without the need to sprint for the finish.