XTERRA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
Dibens meets Stoltz at top of Xterra world
WAILEA, Maui » For Conrad Stoltz, yesterday's victory in the Xterra World Championship was a return to the pinnacle of the grueling off-road sport he once dominated.
For Julie Dibens, it was a coming-out party signaling the arrival of a new star on the extreme-triathlon stage.
The event began at 9 a.m., with 550 competitors taking the plunge into the surf off the Maui Prince Hotel for a 1.5-kilometer ocean swim, followed by a 30K mountain-bike ride on rocky trails along the foothills of Haleakala and capped by a 10K run through dirt, lava and sand.
Twenty-seven miles and 2 hours, 40 minutes and 54 seconds later, Stoltz brought to an end several frustrating years of declining success brought on by injuries and bad luck.
The 34-year-old South African dominated the Xterra regular-season tour by winning four of five events. And under overcast but muggy conditions, Stoltz regained his winning form at Wailea with a dominating victory for his third overall world title, but first since going back-to-back in 2000 and 2001.
An accomplished biker, Stoltz figured he was in serious trouble as he trailed Olivier Marceau of France -- if only by 4 seconds -- going into the running portion of the event.
"I was going against one of the greatest trail runners in the world, so I figured the worst," Stoltz said. "But I caught him about 1.5 miles into the run, stayed with him for another 1.5 miles and then I took over.
"I was very surprised he slipped back so much in the run. That's usually his greatest strength," Stoltz added. "I think he just went out too hard on the bike and didn't have enough left in the run."
Stoltz steadily pulled away and finished 1 hour, 11 seconds ahead of Marceau, who was relegated to a runner-up role for the second straight year. In 2006, he was overtaken by New Zealand's Hamish Carter and lost by 11 seconds. Carter did not defend his title.
"In the beginning of the race, I was feeling very good," Marceau said. "But as I started to climb, my legs began feeling heavy. The most important factor in Xterra is not speed, but strength. I didn't compete in enough Xterras this season, and never developed my strength to a championship level. My legs were too weak."
The top American finisher was Brian Smith of Colorado, who claimed third place -- 1:41 behind the winner.
Alexander Eiler of Kailua was both the first amateur and the first competitor from Hawaii to cross the finish line in 26th place.
Stoltz described the course as less demanding and much smoother than in previous years.
"There were a lot less rocks to deal with on the trails, which takes a toll on your equipment and on your endurance," he said.
While Stoltz had a frame of reference to draw upon, Dibens was competing in only her third Xterra race and her first world championship.
The 32-year-old from England is an admittedly accomplished swimmer and runner, but has had little experience as a competitive rider. That discipline of Xterra is the greatest strength of Melanie McQuaid, who was bidding for a three-peat and her fourth overall world title.
"Melanie is a great bike rider, so I was stunned to be leading going into the run," said Dibens, who transformed a surprising 84-second lead going into the final leg of the event into an eventual victory margin of 8:28 with a final clocking of 3:01.24.
Jamie Whitmore of California, the regular-season points leader finished third, 10:13 off the pace.
"I'm very inexperienced on the bike, and if you had seen me in practice earlier this week, you would have seen that I was quite awful," Dibens said. "But once you get into the race, you forget about those kinds of things. You just put on your game face, forget about everything except to just go."
Asked if she was aware that she had pulled away from McQuaid by such an imposing margin, Dibens replied: "I wasn't looking back."
Based on the way she demolished the field, it appears as if the top women competitors in Xterra have someone new to follow.