• Jolanda Neff (Stckli Pro Team) was back to her best in La Bresse (Rob Jones)Source: Rob Jones
The first half of the Cross-country series of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup concluded in La Bresse, France, on Sunday, with new faces on the top step of the podium for the first time this season.
30 May 2016 - 1:19 PM 

Jolanda Neff (Stoeckli Pro Team), the defending World Cup champion, took the women's victory after coming back from a flat tire, while Julien Absalon (BMC) had a very popular win in the men's race on what is essentially his hometown course. It was Absalon's 31st World Cup win, as he continues to add to an already record number.

Australian riders had mixed results, with Rebecca Henderson (Trek Factory) having a strong start and then holding on to finish eighth. Dan McConnell (Trek Factory) didn't have as good a start in the men, sitting in the 30's for the first half of the race before improving in the last two laps to finish 24th.

The rain that had been forecast for race day came the night before, leaving the descent muddy but rideable. After a long climb out of town, riders faced a technical section traversing the top of the course before a long, switchback descent back to the finish, for a total of 4.2km.

In the women's race, Canadian riders took second and third, with Catharine Pendrel (Luna) followed by Emily Batty (Trek Factory). Neff missed the first round, choosing to skip the long trip to Cairns, Australia, and she was a last minute scratch last weekend in Albstadt, Germany, after falling sick.

However, her form is good, having won the European Championships earlier in the month. She started the race strong, breaking away on the first long climb and then using her descending skills to further open a gap on the first lap. Behind, Batty, Katerina Nash (Luna), Jenny Rissveds (Scott-Odlo) and Lea Davison (Specialized) took up the early chase. Pendrel had got caught in traffic, but was working her way towards the front. Rissveds dropped out, still suffering the effects a crash the previous week, and Batty dropped first Davison and then Nash to chase alone. By the fourth lap, Pendrel was up to third, and both she and Batty were closing on Neff, as the Swiss rider nursed a flat down the descent to the tech zone.

Batty took the lead as they started the final lap, but was soon joined by both Neff and Pendrel. Pendrel upped the pace on the climb, with Batty getting gapped, and then Neff attacked and Pendrel could not respond.

"I wasn't sure how I would feel on the final climb," Neff said, "because on the earlier laps I could just ride my own pace. But I had some energy left, so I was able to attack and go well. I'm not yet back at 100 per cent, so today I really didn't know before the race how I was going to feel. So, I am extremely happy to have done so well and that I could ride. I am really looking forward to recover completely."

Annika Langvad (Specialized), the winner of the first two rounds and the World Cup leader, was never in contention, and was covered in mud after the second lap; clearly having difficulty with the descents and finishing 15th. Langvad continues to lead with 576 points, but Pendrel is now only 66 points behind, making the competition tight for the second half of the season. Henderson remains eighth in the standings, with 324 points.

Absalon's win took place before a partisan crowd on a course less than 20 minutes from his home. Adding to the joy of the spectators, French riders took the next two spots on the podium, with Maxime Marotte (BH-SR Suntour-KMC) taking second and his team mate Victor Koretzky third. World Cup leader Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo) suffered two flats and had to settle for fourth.

Absalon, Schurter and Mathias Fluckiger (Stoeckli Pro Team) opened a gap on the first climb, with Marotte, Koretzky and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized) leading the chase. Absalon and Schurter dropped Fluckiger on the next lap, and then Schurter suffered his first flat, allowing Absalon to solo at the front.

After a fast wheel change, Schurter was back into third, but on the fourth lap he suffered another flat, dashing any hopes of rejoining his rival. Meanwhile, Fluckiger was fading as Marotte and Koretzky were speeding up, pushed on by the cheers of the crowd. The top three was set, with Schurter recovering in the final two laps to move into fourth.

"It's incredible to win at home, but the pressure was really great," Absalon said. "It was really hard because it's important for me to go do a good race to thank all the spectators and all the guys who who work really hard during this last month [to build the course]. So, yes, I am really happy, and it will be one of the best moments in my career. Four years ago, in 2012 [when he also won here], it was a really great moment and also a really great moment today."

Schurter continues to lead the overall standings as the first half of the World Cup draws to a close, with 650 points. However, Absalon is now only 40 points back in second, with Marotte in third, another 50 points in arrears. McConnell moved up one spot in the standings, to 23rd, with 164 points.