Swiss Hat Trick in Cairns
Switzerland proved that they had depth across all XCO categories when they won the Team Relay on the opening day of the 2017 Mountain Bike World Championships, in Cairns, Australia, and they provided further proof on Saturday, sweeping all three titles in the final day of XCO competition. Nino Schurter defended his title in the Elite men's race, Jolanda Neff took the Elite women's title and Sina Frei was the victor in the Under-23 women's competition.
The dry and hot dusty conditions added to the difficulty riders faced on the 4.3 kilometre circuit through the rainforest of the Smithfield Park. Organizers watered the worst sections of the course overnight and for the first two races the dust was more manageable, but by the Elite men's race it was back to thick, choking dust.
Frei, the European champion, took control on the start loop of the Under-23 race, with her usual rival Kate Courtney of the USA mired back in the mid-20s after a crash. Frei was joined by Anna Tauber of the Netherlands for the first lap and a half until her Dutch rival had a mechanical problem, dropping her out of contention. Courtney was moving up through the field, but Frei was putting in faster laps, and took the title with a 49 second gap over the American. Alessandra Keller took the bronze medal for Switzerland.
The Elite women's race saw a group of seven form at the front, with Neff and Annie Last of Great Britain setting the pace. The pair dropped everyone else by the end of the first lap and rode together until the fourth lap, when Neff attacked, quickly opening a 22 second gap. By the penultimate fifth lap the gap was up to two minutes and Neff could coast to her first Elite title. Last took the silver medal, while Pauline Ferrand Prevot of France, the 2015 world champion, took bronze.
"I just wanted to win it so much.," admitted Neff. "The last three years I couldn't win the World Champs, it has been three years since my last win [as an Under-23]. Coming into this race, for the first time, I knew I was kind of healthy and that things could be. I wanted to win it so badly, I just wanted to go at every chance I could get. I just pushed from start to finish. I am over the moon. I am so happy."
Coming into the Elite men's race, Schurter was the overwhelming favourite after dominating the World Cup all season - setting a record by winning all six rounds. The race quickly became a battle between Schurter and 2012 Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic. Henerique Avancini of Brazil and Thomas Litscher of Switzerland bridged up to join them on the third lap, with the Brazilian dropped a lap later, leaving Kulhavy against two Swiss riders. However, it wasn't until the final climb on the last lap, when Schurter attacked and Kulhavy made a mistake in a corner, that the Swiss rider was finally able to get away, hanging on to win by a slim seven seconds. Kulhavy finally dropped Litscher in the final kilometre to take silver.
"It was a really tough one," said Schurter, "Jaroslav was super strong today. I was lucky Thomas was always with us and I was able to leave him the work of leading, and luckily Jaroslav wasn't there at the finish. That last uphill was really hard work and I was glad we were a strong team. I was already from last season super stoked and now this year is even better. I can't believe it, it is going so well at the moment. I am at the pinnacle of my career and I am really enjoying it."
"Yes, it has been an incredible year. I've won seven [six World Cups and the world title] but also the Cape Epic. This year it all came together. It is possible with an amazing team around me. With the Scott SRAM team and the Swiss Cycling team I have the best support, the fastest bike and that makes it possible."