August 28/04 11:00 am - Olympics: Men's MTB Story
Posted by Editoress on 08/28/04
France's Julien Absalon put together, in his words, "a perfect ride" to win the men's cross-country gold medal. Other top contenders, including Canada's Ryder Hesjedal and Switzerland's Christoph Sauser had much worse luck and did not finish. Behind Absalon, Spaniard Jose Antonio Hermida battled 1996 Olympic champion Bart Brentjens (Netherlands) to take the silver, with "Sir" Bart coming in third. Seamus McGrath, Canada's remaining rider in the race, finished ninth, passing two riders in the final lap.
The seven lap race began with a short start loop, and this is where Hesjedal, Sauser and others first ran into trouble. Approximately 150 metres after the start, the riders took an abrupt right and, of course, the field bottlenecked. Sauser, Hesjedal, Thomas Frischknecht (Switzerland) and Liam Killeen (Great Britain) were some of the riders to get caught in the traffic jam, and would lose many places.
Mountain Bike World Cup leader Sauser would manage to work his way back to seventh place (from the 20s) before his chain snapped on the third lap. Liam Killeen, the U-23 World Cup leader, paced himself up gradually, working his way through traffic on a course that did not allow much passing to finish 5th, which begs the question - how would he have done without the crash slowing him down?
"I got caught in that crash at the beginning, then on the steep pitch I went down while chasing back", he explained, pointing to a gash on his right forearm. "After that I was in 18th, and I just had to chase and chase. It is so loose that you can't pass in many places. It was not a good day."
Fortunately for Killeen, his day ended better than Hesjedal, who was out of the race by the halfway point of the first lap.
"It happened at the first righthander, right from the gun." explained Hesjedal. "The whole thing drifted to the left, and there was nothing we could do. It was not well set up. I was off the bike for 15-20 seconds, and when I got going, all I could see was a long line of guys in front of me.
I was chasing all the way up the (first) climb, and I came over the top in fifth. But the race was up ahead, going away, so I had to let it go on the downhill, I had to make contact if I was going to be in the race. In one of the chicanes I felt it hit a rock, and it bucked me right out of the groove, and I blasted through the tape. My (rear) tire blew so hard from the rock, it blew the tire bead off the rim (Hesjedal was riding tubeless). So I was dead last, and it took at least 3-4 minutes to put it on, but the first time I put pressure on it again it blew off the rim."
Meanwhile, at the front Absalon, Brentjens and Marco Bui (Italy) were setting a blistering pace. By the start of lap 2 Hermida was 11 seconds back, followed closely by Ralph Naef (Switzerland) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (France), with Miguel Martinez (France), Roel Paulissen (Belgium) and Sauser 35 seconds behind the leaders.
Hermida and Peraud bridged up in the third lap, as did the defending Olympic champion, Miguel Martinez. This is when Sauser's chain broke, otherwise he would have likely been there as well. However, the pace Absalon was setting was too high for all but Hermida and Brentjens, and by lap four there was only these three riders at the front. Martinez tried to attack, but did not have the legs, and eventually dropped out at the end of the fifth lap.
Absalon then decided it was time to put the pressure on, dropping the other two in the fifth lap on the first climb. By the end of the lap he had a 31 second lead on Brentjens, and one minute on Hermida, who had crashed during the chase. A lap later Hermida had caught Brentjens, and the pair were working together, 1:15 down on Absalon, who still looked strong and smooth.
"I prepared very hard just for these Games, that has been my whole focus." said Absalon. "When I went, it was a hard decision because it was a little early. But my legs felt very good, so I decided that I needed to try it."
He would cross the line waving a French flag and pointing at the sky, in remembrance of his father, who died in 2001. "That was for my father. He was my main supporter, my main fan, and the reason I am here today."
At this point the race for gold was over, and attention turned to the silver medal battle. Hermida, with memories of his poor showing in Sydney turning over in his mind, was not going to miss out on the medals again, and attacked on the last lap, dropping Brentjens. He cruised up to the line blowing kisses, got off his bike and lay down, to great applause. Brentjens, looking disappointed, rolled across the line to take the final podium spot.
The silver medal winner became very emotional afterwards, recounting his race, close to tears as he spoke with the media. "During the race I made some mistakes, the most important one my big crash (on the fifth lap). There was a moment when I lost my concentration, which is a dangerous part of the race, when you can get into trouble.. I lost my concentration in the loose gravel and I crashed. I had crashed also in Sydney, so I thought, 'Fuck, you can't lose this, you must keep fighting now.' "
"I was not strong enough at the end to follow these guys." admitted Brentjens. "I think Julien was the strongest, the best guy on the second climb. When it was steep, he was sitting and climbing too fast for me. But I made the best possible preparation. I won gold 8 years ago, then had a poor race in Sydney, so bronze here is good."
McGrath was hoping for better in his race. "It was just a bad day for me, I didn't have it today. I was lucky with the crash (which took out Hesjedal), I was on the inside and saw everyone pushed out to the barricades. All you could do out there was ride your own race, like a time trial, and pass people if you could. So, no, I'm not happy (with my result). When you come to the Olympics you want to win a medal."
- The cycling events have finished now at the Olympics. Australia was the big winner, with 10 medals (including 6 gold), followed by Germany with 6 medals (1 gold), Russia (2 gold) and Spain (no gold medals) with five apiece. Canada finished with 2 medals in cycling, a gold and a silver (ahead of cycling nations such as Italy and Belgium, and just behind the USA and France). Currently, this accounts for approximately 17% of the total medal count for Canada...
- Ryder Hesjedal was philosophical about his bad luck. "The Olympics is it's own thing - it's not healthy to only focus on the Olympics. It's a moment, one event, and I know I'm not less of a racer because I didn't succeed at the Olympics. I would have just the same satisfaction pulling on a rainbow jersey (of world champion). The main thing is to know I was ready. Even for that short time after the first corner, I was able to move back up in three kilometres, which gives me confidence. I didn't get to give my effort today, but I'm really confident with my form, for Les Gets (Worlds)." He also said that he is still looking at options for both road and mountain bike next year, and doesn't expect to make a decision until after the Worlds.