Despite intense heat that saw many riders wilt, the leaders in the Cross-country UCI Mountain Bike World Cup presented by Shimano extended their leads in the Elite men's and women's series at Val di Sole, Italy. World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) and Tanja Zakelj (Unior Tools) now hold commanding leads in the overall standings at the halfway mark of the 2013 World Cup series.
The Val di Sole course is renowned for steep climbs, technical single-track and hot, humid conditions; this year was no different. Riders who went out hard early in the races were fading by the halfway point, and those who had played a tactical game then moved to the front.
Women: Pendrel pays the price after fast start
In the Elite women's six lap race, defending World Cup overall champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna) blazed off the front, opening a 15 second gap on Zakelj, Katerina Nash (Luna) and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida). However, by the second lap the other three had caught her, and the Canadian faded to eventually finish sixth.
Zakelj and Nash had dropped Dahle Flesjaa and Pendrel by the end of lap three, and the pair rode together at the front for a lap before Nash attacked. The Czech rider carved out a slim eight second lead, which she held into the final lap, but then also faded in the final half lap to finish 20 seconds down on Zakelj. Emily Batty (Trek World Racing), moving up steadily throughout the race, moved into third on the fourth lap, and held it to the line.
"This course fits me well," agreed Zakelj. "Yes, I suffered so much; the uphills are very steep, but I am very fit now. I have my fan club here and from this race I have great memories. I always do great here.
"I didn't expect to win again, because there are so many strong girls, but of course I was ready to win. Now I have the mental feeling that I am at the top so I am always ready to win."
Zakelj now leads the overall standings with 650 points, followed by Maja Wloszczowska (Giant Pro XC) at 490 and round one winner Eva Lechner (Colnago Sudtirol) with 470 points.
Men: Schurter and Absalon in two-man battle
The men's race started with perennial rivals Schurter and Julien Absalon (BMC) attacking the rest of the field. Olympic champion and former Val di Sole winner Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing XC) managed to stay with the duo for one lap before having to slow to his own pace. The two leaders steadily pulled away from the rest of the field, never gaining more than a bike length on each other as lap after lap went by.
Into the final lap the two were still neck and neck and, after more than 90 minutes of flat out racing, it came down to the final 200 metres and a sprint. Absalon initially tried to match Schurter, but fell back after 100 metres to finish three seconds down. Kulhavy held onto third, but was nearly two minutes behind the front two.
"It is awesome to win here again," commented Schurter. "It is a really tough course with the steep uphills. It was amazing to battle with Absalon. The last years I was always battling here for the win - once I won - once I got second. I felt pretty strong in the beginning, then I saw Absalon was as well really strong. I never knew if he was playing with me, or if his attack is coming soon. I would say we are nearly the same; I am [just] a bit stronger in the sprint. I am very happy about my victory."
Schurter now leads the men's standings with 570 points, followed by round one winner Daniel McConnell (Trek Factory Racing) at 450 and Lukas Fluckiger (BMC) with 440 points.
In the Under 23 races, the women saw their third winner in three rounds, with Yana Belomoyna (Superior Brentjens) taking the victory. Rebecca Henderson (Trek Factory Racing) continues to lead the overall standings after finishing second, with 230 points to Belomoyna's 210. In the men's race, Markus Schulte-Luenzum (Focus XC) took his second win of the season, and now wears the leader's jersey, with 180 points to round two winner Jens Schuermans' (Versluys) 168 points.
Photo: Nino Schurter wins after neck and neck battle with Julien Absalon