Polish mountain bike racer Maja Wloszczowska won the first round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Canadians Emily Batty and Catharine Pendrel finished second and third, respectively.
"I think it's a fabulous start to the season," said Batty, after the race, her career best World Cup finish. "I had a phenomenal training season, came in with a lot of motivation and fitness. I've had a lot of support from Subaru Trek, and from team Canada. I'm really gunning for the Olympics this year."
Held on a newly redesigned course at the Cascades mountain bike park in Pietermaritzburg, the high temperatures and difficult climbs made the race exceptionally tough for the riders.
In the early laps, all three of the top finishers held spots in the top five.
2010 World Champion Wloszczowska, 2011 World Champion Pendrel and Batty, who is in her second season as an elite rider after racing in the U23 class, all successfully broke away from the group halfway through the race. All three traded positions and the lead over the second half of the race.
For Batty, of Brooklin, ON., performances in the first half of the 2012 season will be critical in earning a spot for the London 2012 Olympics.
There are only two spots available for the Canadian women, and as 2011 World Champion, Pendrel is likely to be the first choice for team Canada. Batty will have to battle with veteran Marie-Helene Premont for the final spot. With four World Cup races in the 2012 season in which to assert themselves, every result will be vital.
In the final portion of the last lap, Batty took the lead ahead of the final rock garden, where Batty had been taking the slower "B" line at the Tree House section. On the final lap, Batty opted for the "A" line, while Wloszczowska took the "B" line, moving into the lead.
Batty was unable to catch Wloszczowska in the sprint for the finish, coming in second, 0:04 back from the winner, with Pendrel finishing third, just over 20 seconds back.
"I didn't expect the victory today, and I changed my coach last year, so it was a big mystery how new training techniques would work. I felt great today," said Wloszczowska, after the race. "Emily passed me before the final downhill, and she took my line, so I had no choice and had to take the other line. I just didn't touch my brakes."
Prior to this event, Batty's best finish at a World Cup had been seventh, in Mont Saint Anne, QC., in 2011.
Reigning World Cup champion, French rider Julie Bresset was unable to match the pace of the front three, crossing the finish in fifth, 1:17 back from the winner. Ester Suss of Switzerland finished fourth.
Marie-Helene Premont finished 21st, 6:12 back from the winner.
Swiss rider Nino Schurter repeated his 2011 performance to win the men's World Cup race. Second place went to South African Burry Stander. German rider Manuel Fumic finished third. Fourth place went to the most successful men's rider in the history of the World Cup, Frenchman Julien Absalon. 2011 World Cup Champion and World Champion Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy finished fifth.
"This is a really good course for me, very technical," said Schurter. "I had a really good battle with Burry. I really like Pietermaritzburg."
"It was like we sprinted off the start line and just kept sprinting," said Stander. "I kept hearing the support of the home crowd, and just kept pushing."
The next World Cup event takes place in Houffalize, Belgium, May 13-15, 2012