Italy opened the cross-country events at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships by winning the Team Relay event on Thursday in a sprint finish over France. Germany won the bronze medal. Each team contained an Olympic medal winner. The United States finished seventh, on the last lap efforts of Todd Wells.
The Team Relay is a strange event even by UCI standards. The Worlds are the only time during the year that the event is held and it is curious why any rider with a shot at individual glory in the cross-country race would want to participate in an event that is almost totally ignored by fans and sponsors. The event consists of four riders from each nation doing one lap of the cross-country circuit. Each team contains an Elite Man, Elite Woman, Under 23 Man and Junior Man. Teams have the individual choice of which order they send the riders off, and strategy plays a role: do you send your fastest riders off first and hope the slower ones can hold on, or do you send slower first and hope the faster ones can catch the leaders? The biggest problem with the event is athletes have to throw down a huge effort in the short and intense lap just days before they have to attack the course for real in the cross-country event. It will be interesting to see how the winners of the relay end up in the cross-country event.
The winning Italian team of Marco Fontana, Beltain Schmid, Eva Lechner and Luca Braidot decided to split their fastest riders, with Olympic bronze medalist Fontana going first, and Under 23 man Braidot last. Fontana finished the first lap in the lead, followed by Canada's Geoff Kabush
and South Africa's Burry Stander. France moved into the lead on lap two with the efforts of Junior rider Victor Koretzky, followed by Canada's Mitch Bailey (Under 23) and Italy.
On lap three, the top teams all sent their female rider, with France adding to their lead with Olympic gold medalist Julie Bresset. Italy's Eva Lechner moved her country back into second, while South African Under 23 man Rourke Croeser moved into third, just ahead of Canada's Catharine Pendrel. Olympic women's silver medalist Sabine Spitz kept the Germany team in contention, in fifth.
The final rider was critical. France started the last lap seven seconds in front with Elite man Maxime Marotte, but Italy's very impressive Under 23 man, Braidot, caught the French rider and took the lead. Coming into the stadium finish, Braidot
had 30 feet on the French rider, but Marotte caught him in the final corner and the two sprinted for the finish line, with the Italian holding off the French rider by a bike length.
"I think you can either race with the elite man first or very last," explained Fontana. "We had a start loop on the gravel and then hit the course where it was narrow and singletrack, so having an elite man first was a good strategy. I knew I could be in the front straightaway, and then I just did my pace, and I think it was a good one. The last one was U23 rider Luca, who has already showed that he can have a quick lap Most of the other teams had the U23 first, so it was a bit easier for me."
The final German rider, Elite man Manuel Fumic, blazed through the field, moving from fifth to third in the lap to overtake Canada and South Africa. Switzerland's Ralph Naef moved his team into fourth, just ahead of Canada.
1 Italy (Marco Aurelio Fontana/Beltain Schmid/Eva Lechner/Luca Braidot) 0:51:54
2 France (Jordan Sarrou/Victor Koretzky/Julie Bresset/Maxime Marotte) at 0:01
3 Germany (Markus Schulte-Luenzum/Martin Frey/Sabine Spitz/Manuel Fumic) 1:23
4 Switzerland (Reto Indergand/Dominic Zumstein/Katrin Leumann/Ralph Naef) 1:59
5 Canada (Geoff Kabush/Mitchell Bailey/Catharine Pendrel/Marc-Antoine Nadon) 2:03
6 Sweden (Olof Jonsson/Emil Linde/Alexandra Engen/Emil Lindgren) 2:47
7 United States (Russell Finsterwald/Keegan Swenson/Lea Davison/Todd Wells) 3:32
8 Ukraine (Sergji Rysenko/Yana Belomoyna/Artem Shevtsov/Mykhaylo Batsutsa) 3:35
9 Netherlands (Michiel Van Der Heijden/Jesper Slik/Anne Terpstra/Rudi van Houts) 3:43
10 Austria (Karl Markt/Michael Mayer/Elisabeth Osl/Gregor Raggl) 4:11
11 South Africa (Burry Stander/Paul Rodenbach/Rourke Croeser/Candice Neethling) 4:46
12 Brazil (Frederico Mariano/Nicolas Sessler/Raiza Goulao-Henrique/Ricardo Pscheidt) 5:42
13 Portugal (Mario Luis Miranda Costa/Amado Goncalco Duarte Basilio/Joana Barbosa/Ruben Almeida) 5:54
14 Australia (Daniel Mcconnell/Ben Bradley/Rowena Fry/Jack Haig/ Africa) 6:01
16 Japan (Kohei Yamamoto/Yoshitaka Nakahara/Rie Katayama/Kohei Maeda) 7:14
16 Serbia (Bojan Djurdjic/Marko Popovic/Slobodan Stankovic/Jovana Crnogorac) 9:31
17 Slovakia (Michal Lami/Frantisek Lami/Janka Stevkova/Ondrej Glajza) 9:35
18 Chile (Daniela Rojas/Cristobal Silva Ibaceta/Felipe Rodrigo Garry Rojas/Patricio Maximiliano Farias Diaz) 9:47
DSQ Czech Republic (Ondrej Cink/Katerina Nash/Martin Stosek/Jaroslav Kulhavy)
DSQ Spain (Cristofer Bosque Ruano/Javier Cerdeno/Anna Villar Argente/José Hermida)
DNS Great Britain (David Fletcher/Steven James/Michael Thompson/Lee Craigie)
We hope Americans Todd Wells (shown), Russell Finsterwald, Keegan Swenson and Lea Davison used the relay to get used to the course instead of throwing down a hard effort. Remember what country won last year's relay? Neither does anyone else but the riders who won it.