Ruben Ruzafa edged Conrad “The Caveman” Stoltz in dramatic fashion to win the XTERRA European Tour Championship elite races at Vachery Estate in Cranleigh, England this afternoon.
A solid, driving rain the night prior left the trails muddy and slick, leaving those without the proper gripping tires (or time-tested skills) flying off their bikes left-and-right. The day, however, was perfect for racing with cool temps and not a drop of rain. The atmosphere was teeming with excitement as the build-up to the race heralded the Caveman’s last XTERRA, commanding the attention of the local and worldwide off-road community all at once.
In a funny side story, Stoltz woke up this morning to his watch set on South Africa time (which is an hour earlier) and ended up rushing to the race site thinking he was late. Instead, he was an hour early, the first to set up his transition, and had plenty of time to pose for photos with his wife Liezel and baby Zena, talk to friends and fans, and speculate on the day. Also of note, he was the last to leave the site, standing on stage and greeting the amateur champions until the very last award was handed out. Clearly the depth and impact of his retirement decision was not lost on anyone.
To the race... As per tradition, British legend Richard Stannard exited Vachery Pond first with the fastest 1.5km swim followed by Ben Allen in 17:41 and Stoltz more than one-minute back in 18:54 and Ruzafa almost two minutes behind at 19:35.
Allen moved past Stannard early on the bike to take the lead and Stoltz said “it took him ages” to catch him. He eventually did, and Ruzafa ultimately did what he does best and moved into the front on the second lap of the bike but couldn’t shake Stoltz.
“I couldn’t pull away,” said Ruzafa, a three-time XTERRA World Champ who has now won 15 straight XTERRA majors since winning Worlds in October of 2013. “I took speed and tried to pull away but he didn’t drop, he stayed on my wheel.”
The tight action made for marvelous, best in the business spectating, with viewpoints in literally dozens of places around the iconic XTERRA England tree to watch it all unfold. Ruzafa and Stoltz came into T2 practically together and then it was a foot race.
“I thought back after my first XTERRA in Richmond where it was all about the experience and not about the result and I just wanted to enjoy the race and I did,” said Stoltz. “The bike course was so much fun, it was slippery and challenging and it was pretty crazy. I had the best run form I’ve had in a while and Ruben and I went out on the run and were together through about 7K and I thought I’d test him a little bit and I went to the front and he hung in and then my shoe got stuck in some mud and came undone for two seconds and he took advantage and really pushed the screws down and I went from being comfortable to pretty uncomfortable in a quick time. Then I jumped across the river and my legs started cramping so I was literally on the ropes. Like I said, even though I came to enjoy the race as much as possible I do get carried away in the racing and of course I wanted to win my last XTERRA. Winning is important, but enjoying it all is important too, so I’m not going to be too hard on myself.”
After the race Ruzafa said that was as hard a challenge as he could handle.
“When I wasn’t able to drop Conrad on the bike I thought it might come down to a sprint, but then he had a problem with his shoe and I knew that was my chance. I was behind him and he stopped and I said, OK, I’ll take it and I just pushed ahead and was able to keep it to the finish. It was a great finish, and a really big challenge for me. It’s exhausting. So slippery out there, and all the time concentrating. I really liked this race, and I think Conrad should be really proud. He is a great person and a great racer.”
Stoltz, the four-time XTERRA World Champion and all-time wins leader with 51, said he did his best to stay in the moment and not let the idea of this being his last XTERRA get in the way.
“I didn’t try to think about it too much,” he said. “There are too many emotions so I tried not to hang on to the emotions, I just went through the process. I think I’ve been able to do that throughout my career, not worry about what’s happening on the outside rather what’s happening right now, so that’s what I did. Just focused on today and the here and now, and I really enjoyed the spectators cheering and the people out there. I actually thought I had the situation under control on the run but Ruben beat me to it and was obviously the faster one. I wasn’t sure if he was playing cat and mouse or if he was really tired, and I tried to burn him off at 7k but couldn’t. By the time I stepped in the mud puddle he was right on me, got that little gap, and I couldn’t close it. I may have played it wrong, maybe should have take it easy until the sprint at the finish and I may kick myself for it later. I literally just lost two or three seconds because my shoe didn’t come off completely, it just came off the heal, and I stopped to put it back on and it was right at the summit of a little hill and when it happened he really put the hammer down.”
Behind Ruzafa and Stoltz, Ben Allen was posting the fastest run split of the day and closed the gap considerably.
“I was 30 seconds too slow,” said Allen. “I’m a bit disappointed, but that’ll be my goal working towards Maui. I couldn’t have done anything more. The conditions out there were treacherous for everybody and I crashed four or five times, it was like skating on ice. It was pretty gnarly out on the bike. I had cross tires, not mud tires, made it hard on myself but just gave it my all. I let two minutes go, but it gives me a good indication on what I need to do in Maui. I thoroughly enjoyed it though and I love being here. We got hometown support from Jacqui’s family that was great. Coming in and out of the forest and seeing the spectators cheering you on, and all the crashes, it was spectacular. Such a fun event.”
XTERRA Malta Champion Nico Fernandez finished fourth and Spain’s Albert Soley came in 5th. As proof of the diversity of the European Tour Championship the top 10 men represented nine countries.
|Ruben Ruzafa, ESP
|Conrad Stoltz, RSA
|Ben Allen, AUS
|Nicolas Fernandez, FRA
|Albert Soley, ESP
|Tomas Kubek, SVK
|Jan Pyott, SUI
|Jim Thijs, BEL
|Chris Ganter, USA
|Henry Sleight, GBR
|Also: Doug Hall (41), Llewellyn Holmes (37), Matt Dewis (34), Lee Williams (31), JP Donovan (28), Jon Heasman, Euan Adams, Noah Wright, Pete Dyson.