Rain and mud did not slow riders down for the first round of the Eliminator in the 2014 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup presented by Shimano, in Cairns, Australia. World Champion Alexandra Engen (Ghost Factory Racing) and New Zealand’s Samuel Gaze took the women’s and men’s titles respectively, to don the leaders’ jerseys in the Eliminator competition.
The technical 813 metre circuit was made even more difficult by the wet conditions, with riders sliding out in corners and on the roots as they desperately attempted to gain traction. The winning tactic proved to be getting the holeshot into the first corner before the climb. From there, it was a matter of avoiding mistakes in the downhill and keeping up the speed into the final long straightaway.
Sweden dominated the women’s qualifying, with European Champion Jenny Rissveds (Scott-Odlo) qualifying first and Engen second. Rissveds survived a scare in the first round, when she tangled with Sabine Spitz (Sabine Spitz Haibike), shearing spokes in her front wheel, but managing to hold on to make it to the final round. Engen rode conservatively in the first two rounds, easing up in the final sprint each time to qualify second, and saving her energy for the final.
Engen and Rissveds were joined in the final by Jolanda Neff (Liv Pro XC) and Kathrin Stirnemann (Sabine Spitz Haibike), but it was all Engen in the podium race. The World Champion exploded out of the start, easily taking the holeshot to lead into the climb, then extending her lead to cruise across the line in first place. Stirnemann crashed early, putting her out of contention, while Neff slid out on the descent, ending a possible battle with Rissveds for second.
“It’s always nerve wracking in the first World Cup of the season,” commented Engen, “because you don’t know where everyone is in their fitness. I’m just so relieved and happy it worked out so well. I love it! As a kid I always wanted to be mud wrestling and out in the rain, so I kind of enjoyed it today.”
The men’s competition saw a number of top contenders go out in the early rounds, victims of crashes as they tried to push the limits in the muddy conditions. Fabrice Mels (Salcano Alanya), Markus Schulte-Luenzum (Focus XC) and Germany’s Simon Gegenheimer all crashed out of competition.
Gaze, riding in his first ever World Cup final, rode from the front in each race, looking confident and in control. Joining him in the final were defending World Cup Champion Daniel Federspiel (Oetztal Scott), World Champion and Australian local Paul van der Ploeg and Emil Lindgren (Giant Pro XC).
Gaze got off to a very strong start, with van der Ploeg in second. Federspiel, usually a fast starter, hit the climb in fourth, but overtook Lindgren and then closed on van der Ploeg, when the World Champion decided to take a slower line through the dropoff. While Gaze rolled across the finish with his hands in the air, Federspiel unleashed an explosive turn of speed in the final 100 metres to overtake van der Ploeg for second.
“I’ve been training for Nationals,” revealed Gaze, “but I’m speechless; it’s amazing to win. Australia and New Zealand have such a good relationship, so it’s great to come over here with family and friends, and do well. It was hard out there; death by a thousand paper cuts. I knew how fast Daniel [Federspiel] was on that final straight, so I just had to go from the gun and give it everything I had. I’m just happy to come out on top.”
Photo: World Champion Alexandra Engen wins in Cairns to take the World Cup leader’s jersey