The final day of cross-country racing in Cairns saw the Swiss sweep the podiums, as the jungle filled with spectators.
A day of dust and danger
With no respite from the dry condtions, the dust bowl of Smithfield mountain bike park received another pounding today. With more spectators than the week days, and plenty of XCO horse power hitting the trails and access paths, the valley behind James Cook University has been shrouded in a wall of pale dust for days.
There were three World Titles to fight for today, and the U23 women hit the course at 10am this morning, to do battle over 5 laps.
So far, every race has been won from the front. It sounds silly to say this, but you don't always have to be at the front of the race the whole time to win it. Except here on the course in Smithfield. It really helps if you come out of the start loop in the front group, given the tight trails, but also the flat sections are so fast, passing is a big ask.
Off the line, it was Swiss Sina Frei who looked to be alone, the tiny rider pedalling her hardtail furiously.
"The course was really cool, it's really hard with the uphills also on trails. So it was really important to stay in front," said Frei after the race. "I really liked the course. The downhill is really fast in the last sections, and the technical parts are fun."
But the question on everyone's mind was where was Kate Courtney from the USA, and the Swiss Alessandra Keller? Anna Tauber was up the front, as was Evie Richards, but the other leading ladies were absent - having been caught up early on.
"I had a crash on the start loop, where I caught my derailleur," said Keller. "I had to stop at the tech zone to have it fixed. Then I was last, and on the second lap I had a flat tyre, and had to stop again. I was last again. Then on the 3rd lap I had to go, and it was probably the best race I have ever done. I'm happy with my 3rd place."
Courtney was in a similar position, but having been caught in a crash on the start loop at World Champs in 2016 and not able to regain her motivation - she was over the moon with how today worked out.
"We were caught up in the same crash in the start loop. It adds a whole new mental challenge, and for me I've worked a lot on the whole mental strength side this year. Being able to keep my head, and work my way back and pace myself really showed the work I've put in this year. I'm really proud of the ride back to the silver medal."
Frei stayed clear and won by 49 seconds from the chasing Kate Courtney. This was her second visit to the podium for a stripey jersey, after the Swiss team one the Team Relay on Wednesday.
"For me it's unbelievable. I would never think I would be a double world champion. It's really cool to be on the podium with a Swiss friend. It's a good year for Swiss cycling."
Courtney gave the technical track in Cairns a lot of praise, especially for maintaining her focus to keep chasing hard.
"This course has a lot to offer. You had to stay focused and on it at every single moment. It kept me really focused on every root, every corner. Having to focus on the lines kept me moving forward today."
Despite not being a great course for passing, talent counts. And clearly Courtney and Keller found their opportunities today.
"The track is technical on the uphill and the downhill," said Keller. "The uphill isn't great for overtaking, but I think Kate and I know all the places to overtake riders now."
A tough day for the Aussies
Jumping into a pool of racers who are accustomed to racing against each other week in and week out is no mean feat. But that's the challenge that Australia's U23 women were faced with today, as Holly Harris, Megan Williams and Charlotte Culver toed the line with the world's best.
Williams had a good start and moved up through the field, the dust and the carnage, but ran into difficulties with what we believe was a mechanical problem on about lap 3. She battled on to finish 27th, one lap down.
Holly Harris lots time early on but regained positions to finish 22nd in a fast race. Charlotte Culver came in 28th.
The Swiss charge continues
After the U23 women's race, it was straight into the Elite Women's title. The crowds continued to grow, fans with placards, fancy dress and big voices were piling into the arena, crawling through the forest, and lining the course. Things were set to get rowdy! In an XCO sense.
The front line of the Elite women's race read like a hall of fame. Neff, Dahle-Flesja, Langvad, Pendrel, Kalentyeva, Indergand...
The gun cracked and the who's who of elite women's XCO were off! Neff and Indergand were first into Veemass after the start loop. Would Indergand go too deep into her eliminator mode, and could Neff deal with the heat?
Waiting at Rodeo Drop it was Annie Last who shot off it first, the the Swiss riders behing, with Russian Kalentyeva in the mix too.
Neff and Last were duelling, but Neff ended up moving into a class of her own at the start of the 2nd lap. Annie Last couldn't follow.
"I was leading on the 2nd climb, but I could feel Jolanda was on my back wheel. Jolanda came around me and I couldn't react. She got a gap from there."
Neff had got to the front with Indergand, and that was all part of the plan.
"Today was really great for me, we've had a strong team coming in to this race, we were four girls who could all have a good race. I've had the best start I could wish for thanks to my team mate and our coach. It was the perfect plan. All I had to do was just stay there."
The course was taking it's toll, with the likes of Langvad flatting, and Pauline Ferrand Prevot and plenty of others bashing the rim down the descent to get to the tech zone.
"I had a bad start and I was quite far away. I tried to come back but I was in 2nd position and had a flat. i had to change the wheel but I kept calm. Maja and Irina also had a flat so when I came back and I was back in a top position I gave it everything to keep the pace."
Riders were crashing, and the gaps were growing. Neff was in a class of her own. Save for a mechanical, it really didn't look like she would get caught. She won with a lead of 2 minutes and 23 seconds.
"There are no words, I'm just happy!" said Neff in the press conference, while the smell of champagne wafted to those of us asking questions. Compared to her last world title victory in Laissac at the 2016 XCM World Championships, where she believed Annika Langvad was in front, today she could enjoy it.
"At least today I knew I was in front and could enjoy it!" Neff exclaimed.
While Neff has preivously not done well in hot races, she was abale to focus on her training through August through the Swiss summer. Training at home for four weeks, and she prepared really well. "Last year I was in Rio at that time and it was not so fun."
"I've had a lot of good training together with my Dad, we really prepared in a good way for this race." Neff is coached by her father, and they train together almost every day. "We work together, he also is my mechanic. Thanks to my Dad I'm riding my bike. We did some motorpacing as we knew there would be a long flat part. We also did a lot of uphill training. I enjoyed it, I'm really happy I could win today. My parents are the most important people who made it possible I could be here."
Ferrand Prevot has been World Champion before. She was XCO, CX and Road world champ in 2015. But today was still a victory.
"For me today is like a victory. One year ago I wanted to stop my career but today I fought really hard to find a good level again. I'm not disappointed, I'm really happy for Jolanda because she has tried many years to win this title."
Australians in the dust bowl
All eyes were on Rebecca Henderson for a stand out ride - but it's one of those things that is super-hard to do at World Champs. Bec had an awesome ride, and like so many of the true champions in the sport, she had a tough day, finishing 20th. So Bec was 3rd at the World Cup last eyar and was 20th today. Langvad won the World Cup here last year and finished 25th. Sabine Spitz placed well last year and today was 32nd. All these riders are truly world-class, but absolutely everything has to go your way on race day.
Peta Mullens was 38th, moving up from her start position. Eliza Smyth was 47th with Kathryn McInerney in 48th. Anna Beck was 49th and Tory Thomas posted a DNF.
All eyes on the Swiss
After two of the day's titles going to Switzerland, and even 3 of the 6 medals on offer falling to the land of cheese, chocolate, mountains and banking - everyone wondered whther Nino Schurter could not just have the perfect season, winning all World Cups and the World Championships - but could the Swiss take all the titles on offer today?
The Elite men were lined up, ice vests removed, with an intense focus on the 1.5hrs of racing ahead. The green jungle of tourism brochures was barely apparent. The surrounding foliage has all been covered in dust, making the venue a near lunar landscape - but with more vines to trip over.
The helicopter for the live feed thumped over head as we all waited anxiously for the start. Phones dangled above GoPros. Plastic chairs were highly sought-after to gain a vantage point. The gun went, and the Elite men surged ahead in a surge of adrenaline and testosterone.
But it wasn't just the Nino Schurter show. The likes of Jaroslav Kulhavy, Thomas Litscher and Henri Avancini were all throwing everything at the race. Kulhavy and Avancini both had their time in the front, but Avancini did fall back with a mechanical.
The front group of three were stuck together, and so far Nino hadn't had to take charge of the race.
"When we come into the last lap I was still thinking it was 2 laps to go, so I knew I had to make a decision in the last uphill. Jaroslav was super strong." Said Schurter.
"I was quite strong today, but I did a mistake on the last climb and Nino was strong and passed me. He got 5 or 10 seconds and it was too much - it was done. It was a very nice race for fans and I enjoyed it," said Kulhavy post-race.
"I was happy to have Thomas always with us so I was happy I didn't have to do any work at the front," said Schurter. "Going into the last uphill I still had to pass Jaroslav. I tried it in one of the first corners and I couldn't pass him. I tried again in the 2nd corner and could pass him. It was super tough to the top and I had maybe 5 or 6 seconds to Jaroslav and I just hoped to get down without any mechanicals. It was a really tough battle and I was glad Thomas was always with me, it helped a lot."
Schurter gained maintained his advantage on the descent, finishing 7 seconds ahead of Kulhavy. Litcher was another 8 seconds behind.
"I have had really hard years behind me," expressed Litscher. "In 2011 I was U23 World Champion and since then I've had more downs than up. This year I started not so well in the season. From the middle of the season I could solve some problems, and my shape was getting better and better. Now with a 3rd place, it makes me confident for my future."
With a win the in the Cape Epic, all World Cups, and now the World Championships just this year, Nino was quick to point out that he's peforming without pressure this year.
"There was much less pressure, but I was prepared like last year. That makes a huge difference if you don't feel the pressure and you can just enjoy it. I'm at the pinnacle of my career and I'm really enjoying it at the moment." But it also has a lot to do with who is around him - both with his factory team and the Swiss team.
"The whole season we are travelling with the factory team, I have the best support, best equipment and the best people around me. Also in the Swiss team we have the bets staff around us. The best physios and the best mechanics. We also have the Swiss Cup at home, so we can compete with the best athletes all the time. It means the young riders can see us racing, and have something to aim for."
"It's a great atmoshphere in the Swiss team," Litscher continued. "We are all friends, we go training togther, have coffee together. We have fun together and that makes it relaxed and we can start well-prepared in the race."
And part of the Swiss race plan was to have that support there. It worked for Neff, it worked for Schurter. And now Switzerland have 4 of the 7 XCO World Titles that were available in Cairns.
And next year - they have a homeground advantage in Lenzerheide.
Aussies play in the dirt
It would be hard to not call Dan McConnell's 9th place his best result of the season. Dan didn't have a great start, seeming to be a group behind where he would want to be. But he managed his effort, and his equipment perfectly, coming home so strong over the final laps.
Cam Ivory had a cracker of a race, finishing 41st in the best field in the world. Kyle Ward was back in 56th, a huge ride considering he's played a super-swanny role more often than not at major races this year. Both these guys finished on the lead lap which is no mean feat when guys like Kulhavy are pushing the pace at the front, and the laps are so quick.
Russ Nankervis was a lap down in 59th, still a stand out result for the Bendigo-based mountian biker. Mark Tupalski was 66th and Seb Jayne 67th - both 4 laps down, not being able to regain the ground needed after flats in the first lap at the top of the course.