The end of Saturday's opening cross country World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, seemed familiar. By about the halfway point of the race, only two men remained at the front: 2010 overall World Cup winner Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) and former Olympic and World Champion Julien Absalon (Orbea).
The pair seemed evenly matched and the race was reminiscent of the opening World Cup in 2010 in Dalby, where Schurter outsprinted Absalon at the end of the race. Schurter had also battled and outsprinted Absalon the end of the 2009 World Championships.
"Today, Julien and I were riding at the same high level," said Schurter.
Although the lead duo was constantly pursued by Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized), world champion Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida) and Marco Fontana (Cannondale), it ended up being a case of last year's World Cup winner Schurter, a former junior and under 23 world champion, vs. Absalon, the most winning cross country athlete of all time.
Lap after lap, Absalon seemed to be the stronger climber and Schurter seemed to be the better technical descender. The two traded turns at the front depending on where they were on the course.
Each lap, Schurter looked a bit smoother on a downhill, technical rock garden about 1km from the end of the lap. With just over one lap to go, Schurter perfectly executed a smart tactical move that played to his strength. He pushed the pace on the downhill and he got a small gap on Absalon when the Frenchman made a mistake on the rough terrain.
Schurter gained about 10 seconds, which proved to be the key to the race victory.
"The only chance to win this race was taking a lot of risks and making the difference on the downhill. I had some back pain on the last lap and really had to give it all to not let Julien get back to me. I was at the limit. It was a pure fight."
The two men congratulated each other after the finish. Both had put on quite the show for fans.
The victory means Schurter will get to wear the World Cup leader's jersey going into the next World Cup round in Dalby, United Kingdom in mid-May.
"I'm happy I could start my World Cup season with a victory like I did last year," said Schurter.