Cross-country: Double Olympic medallist finishes second to Spaniard Hermida

2009-04-12 00:00

Spanish star Jose Hermida got the 2009 season off to the perfect start when he toppled double Olympic and four-time world champion Julien Absalon to win the first round of the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.

The 31-year-old Spaniard, who rides for the Multivan Merida team and is currently ranked fifth in the world, was vigilant from the start, making sure he was in the high-powered early lead group comprising current Swiss world champion Christoph Sauser, South African hero Burry Stander (both Specialized Factory Racing), Under-23 world champion Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower) and Absalon (Orbea).

Shortly after halfway through the seven-lap race, which was watched by more than 7 000 cheering fans, Schurter cracked from the fast pace and let a gap form between himself and the trio of Stander, Hermida and Absalon. Sauser, who was on Schurter’s wheel at the time, also lost ground, effectively eliminating him from the podium battle.

On lap six, Hermida opened up a gap after a steady surge, forcing Absalon and Stander into pursuit mode. But at that late stage in the race, it became a test of attrition as the hot weather and incredibly steep climbs took their toll on the two chasers.

Hermida charged powerfully through the final lap and crossed the finish line in one hour, 55 minutes and three seconds, giving his trademark matador gesture to the crowd. Absalon crossed the finish half-a-minute later, with Stander arriving 52 seconds after Hermida to a deafening welcome.

Sauser and Schurter were caught on the final lap by Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon). The fast-finishing German, who won the test event on the same course last weekend, passed Sauser up the last climb, but the Swiss used his superior descending skills to reclaim fourth place before the finish line.

“Pushing Julien [Absalon] was not easy, and I suffered, but I knew I had to do it. I knew that if I pushed him, and gave my best and put in a gap of maybe five, 10, 20 seconds over him, he would give up,” said Hermida afterwards. “That’s why, on the sixth lap, I had to make sure I could put maybe 30 seconds into him on the climb … then I knew he would give up. It worked. I love to win this race here. This is a beautiful country for mountain biking. The people here gave great support. It is a great place to race.”

Absalon was surprisingly content with his runner-up place.

“It was a hard race. But in the World Cup it’s always hard. I am very happy with second place because I was hoping to get top five today.

“Hermida was very strong. He deserved to win.”

For Stander, who also won the Under-23 category title, finishing on the podium was a significant feat.

“The pace was really hot today. I’m glad I was able to hang on for third place. I’ve had ‘lazy’ legs for two weeks. I think I’m still not properly recovered from the Cape Epic. I lacked pure speed, but I had good endurance,” said Stander, who was appreciative of the spectator support.

“The support was incredible! The crowds made so much noise for me I couldn’t hear myself think. It’s amazing to race a World Cup in my own country and to have such huge support. Thank you to everyone who came out to support me and to support mountain biking in South Africa.”

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