As the only U.S.-based mountain bike event before the Sydney Olympic Games to host such an extensive international field of riders, Mount Snow was a big date on the calendar for U.S. pros the reason being that USA Cyclings coaching staff will make the Olympic team decisions primarily based on tough, international-caliber races.
Taking that to heart, Americans Kirk Molday (Trek-Volkswagon) and Tinker Juarez (Volvo-Cannondale) raced into the top-five in late-season bids to make the team headed for Sydney in September.
The U.S. Olympic mountain bike team two spots for men and women will be announced July 14. Alison Dunlap is the only elite stars-and-stripes clad rider to have success on the international level this yearshes tearing up the world with her current number two ranking but that hasnt cooled the battle to the wire for the American men.
The demanding Mount Snow course featured steep and sandy climbs, rocky, root-lined technical descents and hike-a-bike mud bog sections, a perfect tune-up race for the Mont-Sainte-Anne (July 1-2) and Canmore (July 8-9) World Championship races coming up in Canada.
In the womens race, Redden, who has raced well all season long in the World Championships, was in control from the start. First she dropped countrywoman Alison Sydor (Volvo-Cannondale) at the end of the first lap, then rode alone on the four-lap, 15-mile race the rest of the way.
Reddens post-race analysis was as simple as could be: "I just felt really good.
The race for second was much closer. Dunlap, who reported she was coming off a hard week of training and wasnt quite as fresh as normal, steadily worked her way up into second, but three-time American national champion Ruthie Matthes (Trek/Volkswagen) making a strong bid to join Dunlap on the U.S. Olympic team and Australias Mary Grigson (Gary Fisher/SAAB) were within 30 seconds of each other half way. Dunlap finally pulled away on the third lap to lock up second.
Ruthie (Matthes) was tenacious, but I held my own out there, Dunlap said at the finish. I was a little worried about Mary (Grigson). She always comes on strong at the end of a race. I was listening for her and Ruthie in the woods. I could hear how far behind they were.
Matthes and Grigson finished in a sprint, with Matthes taking third.
One woman who didnt race but still drew lots of attention was the always-flashy Italian Paola Pezzo. She wandered around the course in a leopard skinsuit. Pezzos training plan is fully geared toward September and her hopes to repeat as Olympic medalist.
The mens race for first went like the womens a solo dash way out ahead of the field. At the finish, Sauser reported that everything went well for him which was no surprise given his easy win.
"When you can ride your own speed, like I did, it makes it easier," Sauser said. "Because nobody followed me, the race seemed very long, like three hours. In the third lap I thought I didn't have good legs, but my strength came back."
Juarez blasted off the start line from his position far back in the sixth row to the second spot early on, but his hard effort would cost him as he slipped back to a still very respectable fifth place by the end.
"Everything started feeling bigger, harder and rougher. That's the tough thing about starting in the back, you really have to work hard in the beginning. Juarez noted about his start. On a course like this if you work hard you'll really, really feel it."
The man who supplanted Juarez in second is looking more and more like he is on the road back to the top. Molday, a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, but now living and trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, is still on the comeback trail from Epstein-Barr Syndrome (chronic fatigue) in 1998. But hes making huge strides this year.
A self-admitted slow starter, Molday picked up a spot in each of the final three laps to grab second behind Sauser. Moldays fine showing wasnt a total surprise he won the opening round of the NORBA Series in May at Snow Summit, Calif.
"I was just trying to win today, whether or not Americans, Canadians or Europeans were here. This course has always been good for me. I wasn't too concerned with Christophe (Sauser) taking off so fast. I thought that maybe he and Tinker (Juarez) would play cat and mouse, so I just waited to see what happened," said Molday, who was fourth in the world championships riding for Canada three years ago.
"Right now, I am focusing on the next two World Cups. I'm in good form, but I'm a little nervous. I'll start in the back, and there's a lot of depth in the World Cup field," Molday said. "There's about five of us (Americans) who have the potential to do medal at the Olympics, depending on what sort of day we are having. The trick will be to pick the two riders who ride well consistently." Consistent has been the word for the American mens field, even if they havent been world-beaters. In addition to Molday and Juarez, Greg Randolph, who was 17th at the world championships, Travis Brown, who is coming back from a broken collarbone but still managed 10th at Mount Snow, and Steve Larson, the NORBA national champion last year are all possibles for the team.
It will all be decided on the dirt on the following two weekends in Canada, against the best in the world. Whoever is rounding into the best form for two crucial weeks will get to make plans for Sydney. July 14 will tell the tale.
Pro Women's Cross-country: Four laps at 15 miles
1. Chrissy Redden, Campbellville, Ontario, Canada (Gary Fisher/SAAB) at 1 hour, 50 minutes and 50.64 seconds
2. Alison Dunlap, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Team GT) at 1:25.45 back
3. Ruthie Matthes, Durango, Colo. (Trek-Volkswagen) at 1:33.18
4. Mary Grigson, Australia, (Gary Fisher/SAAB) at 1:33.73
5. Alison Sydor, Vancouver, BC, Canada (Volvo-Cannondale) at 5:00.16
Pro Men's Cross-country: Six laps at 22.5 miles
1. Christophe Sauser, Switzerland (Volvo-Cannondale) at 2 hours, 18 minutes and 9.92 seconds
2. Kirk Molday, Temecula, Calif. (Trek/Volkswagen) at 1:15.38
3. Pavel Tcherkassov, Russia (Gary Fisher/SAAB) at 3:03.08
4. Kashi Leuchs, Dunedin, New Zealand (Volvo-Cannondale) at 3:26.31
5. Tinker Juarez, Downey, Calif. (Volvo-Cannondale) at 3:49.29