Aussie Ben Allen is in Sardegna, Italy with aspirations to win his fifth consecutive XTERRA World Tour Championship on Sunday in the season-opener of the XTERRA European Tour. Allen won the XTERRA Guam, Philippines, Saipan, and New Zealand Championships in March and April. He’ll face the toughest field to date at the XTERRA Italy Championship, however, with an in-shape Olivier Marceau and former XTERRA World Champion Nico Lebrun on the start list. The women’s field is stacked as well with Europe’s best in Renata Bucher, Marion Lorblanchet, Helena Erbanova, and Jacqui Slack going up against the rising star from South Africa – Carla Van Huyssteen.
XTERRA Managing Director “Kahuna Dave” Nicholas is in Italy for the race, and brings us this update…
Italy Day 1: Maybe the most perfect day in the history of XTERRA Italy. High 70 degrees, slight winds, sunny with just a few clouds. Frankly, a bad day in Sardegna is a pretty good day, but this one is so nice it might be illegal. Many athletes are already here or are arriving today to prepare for the opening of the European season and always one of the best races in all Europe – road or XTERRA.
Marion “Bubu” Lorblanchet arrived today and is ready to test her recovered left foot. She is in great spirits but still not sure how it will hold up in fast competition. Renata Bucher is here and has had a fabulous early season with four championship wins in five races. Two-time Italy winner Melanie McQuaid is not here but we have some newer racers who are ready to stand on the top step of the podium. Helena Erbanova of Czech Republic roared onto the scene last year at the Czech race and backed it up with solid podiums in Germany, Switzerland and Maui. If she has improved over the off-season she can win. Carina Wasle is always dangerous but broke her hand in a bike crash at the ITU Cross Tri World Champs. Jacqui Slack has improved and has a win under her belt from XTERRA New Zealand. She is always among the top out of the water and if her cycling has improved as it appears she will be hard to catch. The unknown is a surprise. Silvia Ricco has been the announcer at XTERRA Italy for many years. Petite and vivacious, we never knew that Silvia was also a very top ranked road triathlete. She has been working on the mountain bike the last year and is entered in the race. How will she do? Race Director Sandro Salerno thinks she will be on the podium. Also here after a very strong early season with her first big win in her native South Africa and a strong 3rd at the ITU race, is Carla Van Huyssteen. Like Ben Allen, she has sharpened her off road skills and must be considered for the win. What a great way to start the season! Two-time XTERRA European Tour Champion Lorblanchet versus 4-time champion Renata Bucher with Helena Erbanova, Carla van Huyssteen, Carina Wasle, Jacqui Slack and Brigitta Poor from Hungary all capable, and the unknown of Silvia Ricco.
The men’s side is equally unknown. Olivier Marceau has many wins here in Italy and a handful of European Championships, but Australian Ben Allen, who was third here last year, has beaten the Champion three times in early season racing. Allen looks great and did not come here to finish third again. He is looking to keep his perfect season going and anything below the top step will be a disappointment. Frenchman Nico Lebrun is back for his 10th European season and while Nico likes to build towards the end of the season, if anyone in front falters for a second, he will go to the front. Belgium Jim Thijs has been improving every year and looks stronger and more muscular than ever. For Italy Leonardo Ballerini is having a great year and Gianpietro Defaveri has recovered from a late season injury last year and is always very fast in the water and up front. The partial unknown comes from Germany in the form of Alexander Haas. Haas was the all-conquering age grouper in 2011 and often made it into the top 10 of the pro field. How he will do when thrown into the top category will be fun to watch during the season.
Italy sold out months ago and registration manager Mauro Costantino smiles when he says there is a waiting list of 70 people waiting to get in should some people not show. I cannot imagine what the reason would be to not appear in Sardinia. Forget that the sea is aqua blue, the trails are challenging and fun yet technical, the run has the famous twin bridges and beyond all that, the Sardinian hospitality, parties, dinners are of legend.
Can’t wait to see if the young guns are ready to unseat the established stars on Sunday.
Italy Day 2: The weather continues to be superb and the area is filling up quickly. Stuart Marais the second place man from XTERRA South Africa is here testing the waters as a late entry. Stuart is completely unknown on the XTERRA Euro Tour but we know he pushed Conrad hard in Grabouw and beat Dan Hugo and that is enough to make anyone worried. It will be interesting to see how he fares so far from home. There is a good RSA contingent to compliment Carla van Huyssteen and we welcome this powerful nation to the tour.
Registration opened at 3pm and the lines formed immediately. Things are running smoothly and the traffic at transition and the swim beach was heavy all day. Not with cars mind you - but mountain bike after mountain bike. Teams all in the same kits riding together and everyone testing what the course would be like this year. Friends waving and chatting to others they only see at the races. A complete XTERRA family outing.
The bike is quite different yet the same. While it is the same route, Mother Nature has played her games and where last year it was sandy and slippery, this year the rains have washed the sand away but have rutted the course with erosion ditches scattered everywhere. Is that not one of the great things about XTERRA? Same trails, same routes but a totally different ride every year.
Race director Sergio and his men have changed the run and finish areas much for the better. The finish has always been down a road through the campgrounds to a small field just outside. This year the finish is on the beach and within easy walking distance from transition and smack in front of the swim start. Transition was planted out last season and now is a fabulous grassy field, much easier on the athletes feet and the eyes. To make the run the correct distance, it now goes about 1K farther out into the forest before heading back to the new finish line. In years past the athletes ran beyond the swim start and then circled back to the finish running over some far away dunes.
Other differences are a bunch of new trees planted at the beginning of the run the athletes must negotiate. 3' high white pines now dot what was once an easy, open run between the bigger trees. As always, those wonderful shaky bridges that cross the canal are up. Still swaying in the wind and still shaking enough to make a skilled runner stumble.
I think the changes are great as spectators can easily see the entire swim, transition, the start of the second lap on both the bike and run and the finish all within a few hundred meters of each other. Still a day to go before competition starts at 10am on Sunday. More gossip to come.