- Rob Jones
Final round to decide World Cup outcome in downhill, cross country and four cross
The 2009 Mountain Bike World Cup concludes this weekend in Schladming, Austria, with all three disciplines coming together for a packed schedule of racing. For the sixth consecutive year, the Planai ski slopes at Schladming will host Olympic-distance cross country, downhill and four cross racers from around the world, and the overall titles will finally be awarded after eight rounds of racing on three continents.
After qualifying sessions on Friday for the downhill and four cross, the competition begins on Saturday with the cross country. The 5.32-kilometre circuit takes riders on a zigzag route up and down the slopes of the Planai, with with two large climbs in the first half of the lap, followed by a long, switchback descent into the streets of downtown Schladming, and one final climb before descending to the start-finish area. Recent rain means that the track is muddy, and the slippery slopes will force riders to be cautious to avoid crashes. Current plans are for the women to do four laps and the men six, but this might go up if the courses dries out further.
Olympic champion Julien Absalon (Orbea) mathematically won the men's title last weekend in Champery, Switzerland, but the battle for second through fifth in the final standings is still wide open, with seven riders in contention for podium spots. Under 23 World Champion Burry Stander (Specialized Factory Racing) sits second in the standings at 1,090 points, followed by Ralph Näf (Multivan Merida) at 970 and Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida) at 940. These four should take the top four spots overall, but mathematically there are four more riders that could move up as high as fourth: Lukas Flückiger (Trek), World Champion Nino Schurter (Swisspower), Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon) and Canada's Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain). Stander has also mathematically won the Under 23 title, after his first career elite World Cup victory last weekend in Champery.
For Kabush, furthest down the list from a top-five podium, it will be an "all or nothing" race to move up in the standings.
The women's title is open to three riders - Elisabeth Osl (Central Ghost), Lene Byberg (Specialized Factory Racing) and Canada's Catharine Pendrel (Luna). Pendrel's chances of the overall title are slim, but she will be fighting World Champion Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon) for third overall, while Osl - racing before a home crowd - tries to retain the lead over Byberg. The pair goes into the final race separated by 65 points, so Byberg will need to win, while hoping Osl finishes no higher than third in this round. Marga Fullana (Orbea), who pulled out of the World Cup last weekend, with what has since been diagnosed as a fracture in her L2 vertebra, is done racing for the season, so this gives Marie-Helene Premont (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) a slim chance to move up to fifth in the overall standings (she would have to win). The Under 23 title race is similarly tight, with Under 23 World Champion and World Cup leader Aleksandra Dawidowicz (CCC Polkowice) 33 points ahead of Emily Batty (Canadian National), who in turn is 30 points ahead of Caroline Mani (Team Bikepark.ch).
In the four cross, the situation is similar, with World Champion Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox) having an unassailable lead on the men's side, but there is a battle among the women. Dutch rider Joost Wichman is pretty safe in second overall for the men, but there is still a fight for third between Roger Rinderknecht (GT), Romain Saladini (Team Sunn) and Dan Atherton (Animal Commencal). Rinderknecht is unlikely to start, since he is still recovering from injuries that kept him out of the World Championships.
On the women's side, three riders can still potentially take the title - current leader Anneke Beerten (Suspension Centre), Fionn Griffiths (Norco World Team) or American Jill Kintner Red Bull/Intense/Crankbrothers). Beerten's 80-point cushion means that as long as she finishes no lower than fifth, she has won the title. Griffiths and Kintner are tied on points, so this race certainly will decide who takes second and third overall.
The downhill offers a reversal of the situation in the other two disciplines, with the women's title already decided, but the men's still wide open. Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), after six wins in seven races, has an unbeatable lead for the women's title. Recently crowned World Champion Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Centre) does not have as strong a hold on second. She is 85 points in front of round one winner Tracy Moseley (Trek World Racing).
The men's downhill offers the closest competition of the weekend, with current leader Sam Hill (Monster Energy-Specialized) only 16 points in front of Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate). New world champion Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate) is also still in the race, 69 points behind Hill, as is Gee Atherton (Animal Commencal) at 141 points. However, the real race is expected to be between Hill and Minnaar, and whichever one finishes ahead of the other will likely take the title. The points awarded in the qualifying round on Friday have taken added significance because of the tight race, so downhill fans will be treated to two tight races this weekend.
The downhill course is also one where a small mistake could easily lead to a crash. The wet and slippery conditions have made the rooty sections treacherous, and a series of tight, grass turns on the lower portion of the course - where riders are carrying the most speed - mean that crashes are quite possible as riders take extreme chances to win the titles.
Current forecasts are estimating a 50-50 chance for thunderstorms and fairly heavy rain.