Photos: Michele Mondini

#THROWBACK: European Cross Country Championships - Darfo Boario Terme

It should have been Turkey, it ended up being Italy. The genesis of the 2017 European Cross Country Championships wasn’t arguably the most relaxed for the newly-appointed Italian organizers of Darfo Boario Terme.

Boario offered a very technical course for the riders to handle. One stretch in particular, a tricky descent eloquently named “The Wall”, was due to make quite a number of victims over the weekend, also shutting the ambitions of big-time protagonists.

The show started with the traditional opening of any Cross Country international event, the Team Relay. Swiss didn’t need to call on duty superstars Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff to bring home the first gold of a very successful campaign. Filippo Colombo, Linda Indergand and Alessandra Keller powered with their Northwave shoes along with Joel Roth and Andri Frischknecht. Denmark settled for silver on the day, with Malene Degn and Caroline Bohe in the action.

Over the years, Kathrin Stirnemann proved to be a sentence any time the eliminator specialists get on call, and did not disappoint again in Boario. Another gold for Switzerland, another gold for Northwave, and there is more to that, as Dutch Anne Terpstra managed to open her smile on the third spot of the podium.

She had risen to prominence at the Internazionali d’Italia Series, winning the first two rounds among Junior Women and getting hold of the Northwave-factored leader’s jersey in her series, but this time Laura Stigger stood in the way of another Northwave success in the Junior Women race. Spot two and three were for France’s Loana Lecomte and Denmark’s Caroline Bohe: future has a lot to bring.

Swtizerland domination continued when the Under 23 Women came in contention. Sina Frei and Alessandra Keller were the strongest girls in the field, and ended up with gold and silver hanging from their neck. 

While still a work in progress in terms of tactical wisdom, Keller is already a role model in terms of mentality and technical approach. She’s a university student at medicine, so she how to handle long learning processes, and is certainly not short of ambitions. The Europeans once again showed she is ready to bloom.

The most exciting moment for the home fans was still due to come. Italy showed up at the event as no pushovers, but with a certain lack of clear-cut favorites. Sure, Nadir Colledani was coming off an impressive maiden World Cup win in the Under 23 series in Albstadt, and many were looking at him to be the golden boy for Italy in Boario. Someone had different ideas, though.

Gioele Bertolini and Nadir Colledani have been rivals their whole life. It happens like that when two riders that strong happen to be born on the same year and choose the same specialties, ending to race against each other time after time. And even more when characters are that different. Gio “Il Bullo” was sometimes regarded as a younger Marco Aurelio Fontana, particularly very early in his career, but is a personality on his own. Outgoing, not overly diplomatic, and certainly very competitive.

Whilst it had been close most of the times, Bertolini had enjoyed the edge over Colledani more often than his rival. Hence, Colledani’s exploit in Albstadt certainly moved something inside him.

At the start, Colledani moves ahead with Andreassen and Carstensen. Bertolini, getting off from behind, was in a chasing trio. As the laps went by, the two azzurri kept on pushing, wearing down everybody else, until Bertolini finally bridged back to Colledani in lap number four. It was two men leading until the final lap.

He had accelerated in the uphill, and so I did. I forced the pace, so to be first to the top and tackle the descent in the lead. That helped me to earn the few meters I needed to reach the finish solo.
— Gioele Bertolini

In the end, Gioele celebrated with a wheelie, lighting up the joy of the local fans who were delighted with the one-two capped by the Italian colors by Bertolini and Colledani. And Northwave is back to the top step of the podium, for the third time in Boario. Wasn’t due to be the last, though.

Come July, Jolanda Neff’s season hadn’t shown the best side of the blonde Swiss rider yet. This was not to change at the European Champs, as the reigning Elite Women’s champion suffered a severe crash just three days before the showdown, while testing the course. Against all odds, Neff still managed to line up at the start, and looked solid through a lap, but her conditions did not allow her to go beyond the second.

It’s the first time in 24 years I do not finish a race. That happens, sometimes: this time, I could not.
— Jolanda Neff

The best for her was yet to come. Sometimes, just like love, sport is a waiting game.

Picking up the baton – and the European Champion jersey – from Neff was the breakout story of the year, Yana Belomoina. Coming off two World Cup wins out of four stages, the Ukrainian perfectly exploited the form of her life to eloquently solo to the finishing line. 

Behind her, Linda Indergand flashed a silver that shone as much as her Northwave Extreme XC: a fully-deserved reward to the Swiss rider’s consistency, even though it came at the expense of another big protagonist of the day.

Former World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot saw a nearly-certain silver medal vanish due to a crash and a puncture on the “Wall” descent, leaving her defenseless against the comeback of Indergand and Gunn-Rita Dahle, second and third of the podium. Cycling can be harsh at times.

Any time Nino Schurter doesn’t take part in a major event, the predictions for the Men’s Elite races suddenly become wide open. The World Cup season had seen only one winner, dressed in rainbow stripes, and a group of riders competing for the top positions: for those guys, Boario posed a big prize for grabs. And it would make for some thrilling racing.

France had the strength in numbers early on, with Absalon, Carod and Tempier in the lead positions, joined by Swiss Florian Vogel and Lukas Fluckiger, and Spaniard David Valero. It’s Tempier who makes the move, and goes on the breakaway, opening a 30 second gap. Behind him, Valero takes the second position, just ahead of Vogel and Manuel Fumic, and Absalon looming just behind.

In the penultimate lap, Tempier starts losing ground, possibly due to a technical issue. Valero comes back on him, but crashes on the Wall descent and damages his bike. From behind comes Florian Vogel, who suddenly finds himself in the lead on the heels of a super consistent race. Vogel had been European Champion before, nine years earlier, in 2008, so he knows how it’s done. And indeed, he does it.

The Swiss keeps pushing, and he must do, because in the final meters he can feel Julian Absalon closing in on his wake. The Frenchman was the fastest in the final phase of the race, and who knows what would have happened with one more lap. But this time, for Absalon it’s time to surrender his European Champion jersey, and settle for silver in a tough season that far. In third comes Manuel Fumic, making it two Northwave riders on the podium. At 35, barely one month younger than Vogel, Fumic is also the youngest man on the podium: experience does have an importance, after all.

Almost a decade has passed since my first European title, and to keep competing at this level after roughly two decades in the sport means a lot to me.
— Florian Vogel

Who knows if the champagne spraying all over Florian tasted sweeter, nine years later. Absalon and Fumic, anyway, made sure he could at least state the difference.

It was the best possible closure for Northwave, whose riders secured three individual victories as well as an impressive number of podium placements. Boario’s edition will be a hard one to forget, for the overall technical show as well as the amount of success. “Nemo profeta in patria,” they say. But this time, it made an exception.

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