The widely anticipated Elite Men’s cross country race of the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg delivered all the action, drama and excitement as expected with world number two Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower MTB Racing Team) of Switzerland edging out local hero Burry Stander (Specialized Racing) to claim the spoils in the season opener at Cascades MTB Park.
Just as he did in 2011 Schurter showed his superior technical abilities through the notorious rock garden to break the shackles that had seen he and Stander circulate wheel to wheel around the course for the first four and a half laps of the six lap encounter.
A last minute drop of rain couldn’t even put a dampener on the electric on-course proceedings as Schurter put in a surge of speed through the top section of the second last lap, which gave him a clear run into the technical section and that slight advantage was all it took for the 2011 victor.
“I knew I was a bit faster than Burry through the rocks and I tried to get maybe a gap of five seconds, so it was really the same tactics like last year with Absalon,” said Schuter. “It was great to battle it out with Burry. He really had a great race and it was awesome to race against a top South African here in South Africa. I’m really happy about my first victory,” he added.
Stander, having finished third in 2009 and eleventh in 2011, was focused solely on claiming this year’s title and the South Coast rider gave it his all as he looked to achieve his remarkably high goals.
A strong start after the chaos of the first corner saw him into third place and he, Schurter and Manuel Fumic of Germany then worked together to haul in the reigning world champion, Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing), who had flown out of the blocks.
It wasn’t long though before the trio caught the Czech rider and settled into a rhythm few were able to challenge. Stander and Schurter then found an extra gear shortly after the halfway mark and it soon it became a two horse race.
“This year I really wanted to make up for last year, not only for the World Cup here, but for the whole season, which was lacklustre,” said Stander. “I ended off the season with a broken chain in the last World Cup and a crash in the World Championships, so the season ended really badly and I didn’t have a lot of confidence going into this season. So coming here, last weekend gave me good confidence, second today and just being in the mix again, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the podium, so second place is not what you aim for, you always aim to win, but I’m satisfied with what I did today,” he added.
After a disappointing performance in Pietermaritzburg in 2011 Stander was hungry to up his game in front of his home crowd however an improvement in the overall standard of racing at the top end of the field saw the margin for error reduced dramatically and competition for the overall spoils became even more intense than before.
“It was a big race that I wanted to do well in. It’s definitely the most stressful World Cup for me all year,” smiled Stander. “The level goes up every year. Today we were probably going faster than we were three years ago. I think everyone is on top of their game and trying to improve where they can and I realised last year that I would have to do the same and pick up my level if I were going to carry on competing. That’s what I’ve done. It seems to be working and I hope to build and get stronger going forward,” he added.
Having started the race ranked ninth in the world Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing) put in a solid performance and deservedly claimed the final step on the podium after holding off the challenges of last year’s runner-up Julien Absalon and world champ Kulhavy.
“I just wanted to have a really strong start to the season and I finished today in the top three, and it was one of my goals just to have a good race early in the season. I got my Olympic ticket today and that makes me feel really comfortable, so I don’t have stress for the next races,” said Fumic.
“The whole winter I was training a lot. I knew I was in good shape, but I didn’t know that I was going to finish in the top three, so I’m happy about this result today.”
Earlier in the race, world number six Florian Vogel (Scott-Swisspower MTB Racing) had his race cut short when mechanical issues meant he was forced to limp back to the pits and withdraw from the competition, a factor teammate Schurter hadn’t anticipated and had to adapt to during the race.
“My tube came off the rim and I had to dismount the tyre and the wheel was broken so I had to run back (to the pits), which meant I lost half a lap and if you lose half a lap your race is over,” said a disappointed Vogel.
“It’s really bad for him (Vogel),” said Schurter. “He still has to qualify for the Olympics and for me in the race it meant I had no teammate to help me. Last weekend Florian was just a few seconds behind me and Burry and that helped me a lot but this weekend I was alone.”
Saturday’s action is rounded out with the Under 23 and Junior Women’s race before all the action of the Men’s and Women’s Downhill finals takes place on Sunday, where local heroes Greg Minnaar, Andrew Neethling and Tim Bentley will be eager to impress on home turf.
More info can be found at www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – 2012 ROCKYROADS UCI MTB WORLD CUP – PIETERMARITZBURG
Nino Schurter (SUI) 1:30.38
Burry Stander (RSA) +11
Manuel Fumic (GER) +59
Julien Absalon (FRA) +1:41
Jaroslav Kulhavy (CZE) +2:21
Lukas Fluckiger (SUI) +2:28
Jose Antonio Hermida Ramos (ESP) +2:51
Stephane Tempier (FRA) +3:01
Marco Fontana (ITA) +3:22
Ralph Naef (SUI) +3:44