SAIPAN, CNMI (April 18, 2009) Spending two weeks on Saipan turned out to be more than just a dream vacation and perfect early season training opportunity for Sam Gardner of the United Kingdom and Renata Bucher from Switzerland, it also proved to be the secret to their success as the two captured the 2009 XTERRA Saipan Championship titles in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands today.
It's the fifth straight year that Bucher (pictured here by Nils Nilsen) has won this race and she did so convincingly by upsetting two-time and current XTERRA World Champion Julie Dibens, as well as U.S. mountain biking guru Shonny Vanlandingham.
"For me Saipan is the crown jewel of XTERRA and this race is so important to me that I spent the last two weeks here getting ready," said Bucher. "It's just a special place, a beautiful island with wonderful weather and the people are so nice. It's really like my second home now."
The women's race started out much like the Maui championships of the last two years with the stellar swimming Dibens coming out of the water well ahead of everyone as her 17-minute swim split was three minutes faster than Bucher, who had the second best women's swim. Dibens, who has also been on Saipan training with Bucher in the warm tropical weather, had no problems pushing the pace on the bike until; of course, a tumble on a gnarly section of downhill single track sent her flying into the bushes.
"I think I might have broken a rib," said Dibens as she passed a media van a few miles after the crash. "Don't reckon I can make it much worse do you?" she questioned as she soldiered on.
The banged-up ribs didn't slow her much as Dibens held off the hard charging Bucher and Vanlandingham (who had the fastest bike split of the day) to be the first female into the bike-to-run transition. Dibens took a fairly comfortable lead into the run but about a third of the way through the jungle Bucher caught Dibens then turned on the jets through the technical rocky ravine and white sand beach sections.
"The run was pretty painful with the ribs and all, but I'm not sure I would have held off Renata anyway. I think it would have probably turned out the same way," said the ever-humble Dibens, who's 12km run split was a full 10 minutes slower than Bucher.
Meanwhile, Vanlandingham had the time of her life in her first visit to the Northern Marianas, finishing in third place about a minute behind Dibens despite playing the run conservatively due to a lingering ankle injury.
"What a course! I had a smile on my face the whole time," said Vanlandingham. "I'm really happy to come away with the top bike time, and that run was so exciting. Next year for sure I'm going to bring out five of my closest friends and have some more fun."
Local racing star Mieko Carey from Saipan finished fourth among pro women despite taking a spill on the bike. "Give it up for the toughest girl on Saipan right now," said the MC at the awards ceremony.
It's All About The Mountain Bike For Sam Gardner...
Two years ago Sam Gardner made a name for himself in his first race along the coral and jungle-covered course when he came out of the water in 23rd place but then turned in the fastest bike split of the day to finish 2nd behind only three-time Olympian Olivier Marceau.
Gardner (pictured below) did the same thing today, coming out of the water a full three minutes behind the leaders but then picking off fellow pros Taro Shirato, Uli Katzer, Sascha Wingenfeld, Andrew Noble, and finally Mike Vine about halfway through the bike.
"Yeah, Dave Nicholas gave me the nickname the "rock", because I swim like one, but I'm getting better," smiled Gardner, who might deserve "King of the Jungle" nickname status after capturing this race to go along with his 2008 XTERRA Japan crown (another course renowned for its wild jungles and forest).
Defending Saipan Champ and new Dad Andrew Noble (daughter was born March 22) was the first men's pro out of the water and held position through the first few climbs but having arrived from an incredibly long trip to Saipan from Massachusetts just a day before certainly took some of the wind out of his sails.
"On the last big climb on the bike I was thinking to myself 'gosh it would be nice to just lie down for a little while," chuckled Noble.
The flip side of the coin is Gardner, who has been riding these trails and trekking through this forest for weeks now.
"We loved it here when we came in 2007 and it's great to be back in Saipan. I like the hot weather, the bike course really suits me, the swim is fantastic in this warm turquoise water, and the run is pure adventure,' said Gardner, who is on a year sabbatical from his regular duty in a UK Fire Brigade so he can chase his dream of racing at high level at XTERRA.
"I put in for sabbatical five years ago and have really been looking forward to seeing what I can do as a full-time pro athlete. The big goal is the World Championships in Maui and cracking the top 10 if not better, and I'll also race the XTERRA European Tour and a few of the Cup Series races in the U.S. This is certainly a great way to start the year."
Mike Vine was the original Saipan king, having won the inaugural race here in 2002, and worked his way into the lead, albeit briefly, when he passed Noble about a third of the way through the bike before overheating a little bit as Gardner came speeding past.
"This race was a lot harder than I remember, but I'm really glad to be back," said Vine, who was three minutes behind Gardner going out on the run and three minutes back in 2nd place as he crossed the finish line.
Germany's Sascha Wingenfeld was steady all day to place 3rd, Noble settled for fourth, Japan mountain bike phenom Takahiro Ogasawara placed 5th, Brit Jim McConnel was 6th, Austrian Uli Katzer 7th, and Taro Shirato (in his eighth straight Saipan appearance) was 8th.