Cindy Klassen wins World Cup speed skating gold

Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg made the best of a golden opportunity to post her first career World Cup victory on Sunday.

Klassen defeated her pair and pre-race favorite Claudia Pechstein of Germany to win the gold medal in the women's 1,500 metres, which concluded the opening stop on the circuit.

The 23-year-old former Canadian women's hockey team prospect, clocked one minute and 58.07 seconds. Pechstein, the double Olympic champion in Salt Lake City, settled for silver at 1:58.82 and Jennifer Rodriguez of the U.S., was third in 1:58.86.

"I always get scared when I'm paired with someone as great as Claudia," said Klassen, a bronze medallist in the 3,000 and fourth in the 1,500 and 5,000 at the 2002 Olympics. "But I knew she has a very strong last lap and I needed to get the lead early. I was expecting to hear her stride get closer and closer on the last turn but it never happened. I'm really happy but this is only the start of a very important season for me."

Canadian national team coach Chris Shelley said Klassen has made adjustments to be faster in the 1,500 and also trained with the men at the Olympic Oval in Calgary this fall.

"In the 1,500 she's skating lower this year and that's made a huge difference," said Shelley. "She's in a period of heavy training right now and to post these times at this point is very impressive. We told her to take it to Claudia right from the start. And she had a great first turn and never looked back."

Kristina Groves of Ottawa was 11th, Clara Hughes of Winnipeg 13th and Tara Risling of Medicine Hat, Alta., 25th.

In the men's 5,000, the Netherlands grabbed the top-four placings with Gianne Romme first in 6:28.39, Bob de Jong second in 6:28.46 and Carl Verheijen third in 6:33.09.

Canadians competed in the Group B division for those not ranked in the top-20. Arne Dankers of Calgary was sixth, Steven Elm of Red Deer, Alta., 12th, Jamie Ivey of Ottawa 13th, Mark Knoll of Regina 15th and Dustin Molicki of Calgary 20th.

The second stop on the World Cup starts Friday at Erfurt, Germany.