While Lecomte rides away again, Flueckiger wins another World Cup at round three in Leogang.
The third round of the XCO World Cup in Leogang, Austria, was much anticipated. Summer has started in Europe, most Olympic selections have been made, and we all wanted to know if rider's form a few weeks later into the season would be a more true refelection on where they'll be come Tokyo.
Returning to Leogang, the weather was a lot kinder than at the World Championships in 2020. Sure, it was a little wet in practice, but come race day the women had some wet conditions in the forest, but the Elite men had much drier conditions. Even though the weather was much improved from last year's World Championships, the steep, technical descents and savage climbs remained a real test and produced some brilliant racing.
France's Loana Lecomte was already the woman to beat coming into the third round, following dominant performances in the opening two stops, and a win in Friday's Short Track only added to the hype. Bec McConnell finished a strong third in short track on Friday, which placed many Australians on the edge of their seats for the coverage on Sunday evening.
Lecomte stuck to the wheel of fast-starting world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot before opening a gap on the first full lap and never looking troubled thereafter to win by a comfortable 1m48s and make it three wins from the first three races, the first woman in 15 years to achieve the feat. Lecomte is really on another level, with a stunning show of dominance over the past 12 months. How can she be beaten?
Bec McConnell was right in the mix and aggressive early in the race, as was Jolanda Neff. Bec lost a tiny bit of time on a couple of descents, and with such close racing it was enough to mean a few positions. Still, she clawed her way back.
The final lap was all action in the battle for the podium places, with Austrian Laura Stigger on the attack and dropping Ferrand-Prevot but then being overtaken by fast-finishing Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds. Neff had a crash (and has since had a broken hand confirmed) and still finsihed strong in 4th.
Swede Rissveds, 27, said: "I have been struggling a bit with my self confidence the last couple of weeks, so this has been a very good race. I have been practicing a lot to commit fully. It is very scary to go all in because it hurts and there is always a chance of making mistakes."
Elite men - upsets and rewards.
The men's race played out in similar fashion to Friday's XCO with Flueckiger and Czech rival Ondrej Cink repeating their first and second places after Flueckiger broke clear on the penultimate lap. As Nino Schurter missed his pedal on the start at the short track, he was starting many rows back. Could he burn matches to move up - and still race competitively?
Anton Cooper struck out early, and ended up in the leading trio until fading from Cink and Flueckiger. Both the Czech and Swiss were on full-suspension bikes with droppers, while Cooper was on his favoured hardtail sans dropper. While the course had so much climbing, in the techincal descents it was clear that the leading two were making time gaps.
Schurter was overtaking, but never got towards the front of the race, making his effort to beat Julian Absalons record of World Cup victories an ongoing battle. Dan McConnell moved into the top 20 early, faded, then struck back to finish inside the top 30.
Still, the fight for the podium positions was entertaining with Kiwi Anton Cooper easily ahead of Frenchman Thomas Griot, who held off Romanian Vlad Dascalu in a photo finish for fourth.
Flueckiger, 32, said: "It was more mental for me today. I was still a bit tired in my mind from Friday. More and more in the race I found my rhythm and I could find a gap to Ondrej. I knew I had to attack because, when it was constant climbs out there, he was a bit stronger."
Cink, 30, added: "He was very fast in the downhill compared to me so made a little gap and, after that, he tried to push and I couldn't catch him. He was better today and congratulations to him."
Cooper, 26, said: "I was in no man's land for a lot of the race. I tried to stay on Ondrej's wheel but I had to be smart at it and ride my own pace as I could not go with those guys on the climbs."
McConnell said "Today was a big step in the right direction. After a good start I had a couple of laps in the middle where I struggled with my speed but was able to finish strong. 28th in the end, room for improvement but leaving with a smile and a bit more fire in the belly!"
In U23 men, Cam Wright took the fight to his third World Cup this year, while U23 XCO National Champion Sam Fox and Piper Albrect were also racing. Cam was 43rd, Sam 48th and Piper came 75th. Full results are online.
Next up the World Cup circus returns in XCC and XCO at Les Gets in France from July 3-4.
Men's XCO result
1. Mathias Flueckiger SUI 1:15.50
2. Ondrej Cink CZE +0.14
3. Anton Cooper NZL +0.45
4. Thomas Griot FRA +1.26
5. Vlad Dascalu ROU +1.27
Men's XCO standings
1. Mathias Flueckiger SUI 794 points
2. Ondrej Cink CZE 654
3. Victor Koretzky FRA 623
4. Mathieu van der Poel NED 570
5. Anton Cooper NZL 570
Women's XCO result
1. Loana Lecomte FRA 1:17.03
2. Jenny Rissveds SWE +1.48
3. Laura Stigger AUT +1.50
4. Jolanda Neff SUI +2.02
5. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot FRA +2.30
Women's XCO standings
1. Loana Lecomte FRA 1045 points
2. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot FRA 680
3. Haley Batten USA 669
4. Rebecca McConnell AUS 544
5. Linda Indergand SUI 533