In hot and humid conditions in Cairns, Australia, the UCI World Cup opened its season for the cross country racers. Finishing the 2015 season with three straight wins, Swiss rider Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo MTB Racing Team) picked up right where he left off last year winning in Cairns three seconds ahead of Frenchman Maxime Marotte (BH-SR Suntour-KMC) and 27 seconds ahead of the world’s best rider Frenchman Julien Absalon (BMC Mountainbike Racing Team). Leading the results board for the Americans was Stephen Ettinger with a 20th place finish.
Ettinger had let it be known before the race that he was after a top 10 finish. Although that was not in the cards for him on the day, Ettinger was able to look back at his ride with a mix of disappointment and satisfaction.
“I was hoping for more than that – I had the legs for more than that,” said Ettinger. “I was really hoping to go top 15, top 10 would have been amazing.”
“It was a solid day,” continued Ettinger, “But it was the same sort of thing that happened in Argentina, at Bonelli Park and at Sea Otter – it wasn’t an amazing performance but it was solid. I did what I needed to do.”
On the start line, a massive field of 87 riders were chomping at the bit to get underway. With everyone fighting for position on the start loop, it’s no surprise there were several big crashes. Ettinger was on the front end of the one 100 meters off the line but was slowed up by the second one 300 meters into the race and then another one just before the single track.
“I didn’t hit the ground, but it didn’t make for the cleanest start,” said Ettinger. “By the end of the start lap, I was around 40th so I had to put my head down and go forward.”
As Ettinger worked his way through the field, he was able to get in with some groups and other riders that were all trying to do the same thing.
“I spent three or four laps working with Sergio Gutierrez (Trek Factory Racing) moving through the field,” Ettinger said. “He eventually flatted, but he’s always a good wheel to follow. We were able to catch onto the group vying for the top 15.”
Going into the last lap, Ettinger and his eight companions were racing for positions 13 through 21. Top 15 was within his grasp, but Ettinger found himself on the wrong end of the group as the race within the race unfolded over the final climb.
“I was right there, but I wasn’t able to get to the front of the group before the climb where things separated,” explained Ettinger. “I wasn’t on the right wheel when it split up. I was too far back, but I had spent all day to get up there after a slow start.”
Burning a few matches to be more aggressive may have put Ettinger in a better position going over the climb, but in bike racing, taking risks doesn’t always play out in your favor.
“I was riding within myself, but we were definitely pinned going up the climb the last lap,” said Ettinger. “Maybe if I had the impetus to get farther in the group I would have blown up coming down the descent or someone would have attacked in the finish loop and I would have ended up 22. Maybe I would have ended up 15. There are so many what-if’s in bike racing.”
“I think I raced smart for the most part,” Ettinger continued. “I stayed safe. I rode the lines I wanted to ride, I stay hydrated, I ate well. There were lots of flat tires out there, and I wasn’t one of them. I did all the right things. Maybe I needed a little more killer instinct at the end, but it’s hard to have that after 90 minutes of bike racing in the heat.”
On race day, temperatures were hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the moisture in the air was like a wet blanket. For many racers, suffocating weather conditions take their toll before the race even starts - racers can either choose to embrace the conditions or let it get the best of them. Ettinger says ‘bring it on’.
“I love these conditions,” said Ettinger. “I usually thrive when it’s hot and humid like this. A lot of my best races have come in these types of conditions. It felt good. I loved every minute of it.”
Now that the biggest block of back-to-back racing is over, Ettinger has decided to pull the pin on what was supposed to be his next race – Whiskey 50 Off-Road in Arizona – next weekend. Instead Ettinger has made the decision to spend time at home recovering from a long block of racing and traveling the globe before heading back to Europe for the second world cup in Germany.
“I’ve been on three continents in three weeks and it’s taken its toll,” Ettinger said. “I’m pretty shelled right now. I think I’ve gotten through most of this on adrenaline, and I’m not going to be able to fake it in Europe in two and half weeks. I need to take a little break and make good things happen for the races coming up.”
Having not earned himself an automatic spot to Rio with a top 10 in Cairns, Ettinger needs to be at his best for the Albstadt World Cup on May 22 where he knows other Americans will shine. Although Ettinger was the first American in Cairns, he knows that it was not good enough.
“I put myself in a good position yesterday, but I still need to show that I can be competitive against the best in the world – not just against the Americans,” said Ettinger. “I didn’t prove that I’m the candidate by any stretch of the imagination.”
“There are still two more world cups to come, and those will be the ones that decide the roster for Rio so I need to be ready,” added Ettinger. “That’s the whole point of the season - the goal is Rio.”