Business as usual in Germany?
If the first round at Stellenbosch left us with many unanswered questions, the racing in Albstadt certainly helped answer more than a few.
Unlike the dry and dusty Stellenbosch, it was the weather and course conditions at Albstadt that were to be the determining factors in so many of the results.
Albstadt, lying in the south western corner of Germany, close to the borders with France and Switzerland played host to a historic second round of the 2018 UCI World Cup. Historic as not only did the top Elite racers have to compete in the main XCO races but the Friday also saw the introduction to the brand new Short Track (XCC) race. In this format the top forty women and men battled it out over a shortened version of the main course for twenty five minutes. The results dictating grid positions for the front two rows in the main XCO event and were also vital for gaining valuable UCI points (important for overall standings).
As with the main races to come, weather, course conditions and luck all played a part in determining the results.
So what did we learn from Albstadt?
Don’t get Nino Schurter angry
Smarting from his defeat at the hands of flying Kiwi Sam Gaze at the first round nobody would have bet against Nino Schurter trying to settle the score. Unfortunately for the reigning world champ a mechanical saw him forced out of contention during Fridays XCC event and pushed the Scott-SRAM rider into a third row starting position for the main event. For many racers this would have put a serious dent into their confidence but not Schurter. A powerful and imperious start saw him boss his way through to sixth by the first corner but he then played an impressively disciplined waiting game. Allowing Matthieu Van Der Poel and Maxim Marotte to smash each other to pieces for the first three laps of a rapidly drying course, he proceeded to attack going into lap four.
Only Frenchman Stephane Tempier, last years World Cup runner up, could match the flying Schurter. Tempier, riding for Bianchi-Counterveil kept with him until the final lap when Schurter again displayed his strength to drag himself clear. Schurter eventually soloed to victory with a clear sixteen second advantage over Tempier. Van Der Poel rounded out the top three finishing forty seconds back. A puncture took first round winner Sam Gaze out of contention. It looks like Schurter is back with a bang.
Bike handling skills win races
Whilst the UK basked in sunshine Albstadt saw heavy rain that turned the rooty and grassy course into a slippery, treacherous ice rink. Over the course of the weekend crashes became a regular occurrence and caused many a rider to race a touch more cautiously than they would have liked. If there was one race where confident bike handling would win through then this was it.
This was first apparent in the Elite women’s race, when the course was at its most sketchy. Recovering from a broken collar bone, nobody would have blamed current world champion Jolanda Neff for taking it easy. But instead we were treated to a technical masterclass in how to ride the slippery German trails. Easing away on the first lap the Swiss star never looked back.
While her rivals made the course look like hard work, Neff seemingly floated over the horrible roots and technical features. At one point she was putting over forty seconds per lap over the rest of the field and kept pushing until the end, finishing over two minutes ahead of last years winner Yana Belemoina. Belemoina herself has been out with a broken hip but displayed no loss of confidence to claim an impressive result. Holland’s Anne Tauber achieved back to back third places to finish on the podium.
There’s no such thing as a ‘traditional’ race course
Albstadt’s classic mix of savagely steep climbs and short technical descents certainly felt like a more old-school XC track but it proved that its not just man-made features that provide for spectacular racing. Yes, Stellenbosch was probably one of the first XCO tracks that looked fun to ride but the conditions in Albstadt created their own demands and proved that a course’s character can change drastically within minutes.
Hardtails are still here
Apparently the tide of technical advancement can be stemmed. Just when you thought most racers were turning to full bouncers, Albstadt threw up a course that suited the efficiency of a hardtail. Steep climbs and clearance wrecking conditions meant almost all riders chose a rigid rear end, including the winners of every race. It seems that for now, the hardtail is still alive and kicking at high level races.
XCC will dictate the overall World Cup result
The introduction of the Short Track (XCC) race for the top Elites will be both a boon and a bane dependent on who you speak to. With grid positions and UCI ranking points available it looks like the riders are being forced on to the offensive. Ride conservatively in this and you risk a lowly start position and the missing out of vital overall points. The twenty five minute format looks to be suiting the younger, more explosive riders within the men’s category with Matthieu Van Der Poel taking the win. Specialized’s veteran racer Anneka Langvald proved that its a much more open competition in the women’s event. With regards to the overall World Cup, expect to see some possibly unexpected riders who perform more consistently over the two styles of events taking up some of the podium spots at the end of the year.
The UCI World Cup XCO and XCC racing continues this weekend, with round three taking place in Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic. Racing begins Friday 25th May with the XCC.