The four-member Italian team powered to a dramatic and hard-fought victory in the opening world championship event of the 2013 UCI MTB & Trials World Championships which take place at Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg despite a last gasp effort from France to steal the limelight.
Boosted by the local support, Team South Africa started brightly under Phillip Buys but soon found themselves locked in a mid-field tussle with New Zealand and the USA, completing the course distance of four laps of the 18.8km circuit in a time of 1:04:58, six minutes and 46secs behind the Italian event champions.
The four-member local team was represented by Mariska Strauss in the women’s category, and she finished her third leg well enough to rank one place better than the team finish, but it ended in high drama as Sybrand Strauss had to run his bike across the line after breaking a chain and suffering a flat rear tyre.
The Italians, led by elite star Marco Fontana, got the cycling powerhouse’s 2013 world champs campaign off to the perfect start as they raced to a well-constructed yet narrow victory in the fading light of Wednesday afternoon.
Requiring a member of each of the men’s elite, under 23 and junior categories as well as any female rider, the Azzuri opted to send Fontana out of the starting blocks from the get go and the move instantly paid dividends as the elite star remarkably completed the opening lap in a just over thirteen minutes and comfortably out in front before handing over to men’s junior star Gioele Bertolini.
“I thought a hot lap would be around 15 minutes so I am really surprised it was so fast. It was the perfect start,” said Fontana. “The course is getting faster as more riders train on it. I hope I can do seven 13 minutes laps on the weekend!”
Bertolini dug deep and despite losing some time on the chasing pack he ensured his team were still out in front when he handed over to elite women’s star Eva Lechner.
Lechner’s leg, the third of four, was the first time the Italians surrendered the lead as Canada flew past with France still in hot pursuit. The Canadians’ lead was however short lived as Sandra Walter was unable to hold off the final leg riders of Italy, France and Germany.
“We had some good fortune today.” said Lechner. “This was the tenth time we have raced the world relay, and we have two European titles and two World titles now. It is a great start to this competition because individually it gives us all a lot of confidence for the individual races on the weekend.
The powerful French team of Jordan Sarrou, Raphael Gay, Maxime Marrot and Olympic champ Julie Bresset had to settle for silver, after losing the endsprint by the smallest of margins. “No regrets,” said Bresset. “It was a good relay by our team and we gave everything.”
The Germans were pleased with their medal, particularly after they lost their key female rider Sabine Spitz, who crashed out of the competition in a fall on Tuesday. “Hanna (Klein) did a really good job today,” said Manuel Fumic, who brought the team home with a storming final leg.
The strong team from the Czech Republic was banking on a storming finish by Jaruslav Kulhavy, however that all unravelled when the icon picked up a broke chain, and they withdrew from the race.
The UCI Mountain Bike and Trials World Championships takes place at Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg from 26 August to 1 September 2013. More information can be found at www.mtbworldchamps.co.za
Results of the UCI MTB & Trials World Championships: Cross Country Team Relay on Wednesday, 28 August, 2013: 1. Italy 58.12 2. France 58.12 3. Germany 1:00.33 4. Canada 1:00.44 5. Switzerland 1:00.50 6. Austria 1:01.39 7. USA 1:03.30 8. New Zealand 1:03.58 9. South Africa 1:04.58 10. Russia 1:05.04 11. Sweden 1:05.23 12. Namibia 1:13.49 DNF – Czech Republic
(With editing by gsport)