August 21/08 8:37 am - Beijing Olympics: MTB Preview
Posted by Editoress on 08/21/08
Beijing Olympics - MTB Preview
The final cycling events at the Beijing Games (assuming BMX takes place as rescheduled) will be mountain biking, with the women racing on Friday and the men Saturday. Each race will start at 3:00 pm local time (3:00 am Eastern/Midnight Western North America).
The roughly 4.5 kilometre circuit has undergone drastic revisions since the test event last fall, when it was charitably described as a road course. Now, it is very technical, with an added switchback climb and technical, rock-strewn descents. All the riders are praising the changes.
"It is the most difficult course of the year," said Nino Schurter, a member of the favoured Swiss team.
"The course has changed a lot since the test event," commented Athens silver medalist Jose Hermida. "We were complaining last year that it wasn't hard enough, now we find ourselves in a situation where it might almost be too hard! The first part is all up-down, up-down, then there is a long climb after the feedzone with a very fast downhill right after. It's a beautiful course, a hard course, and now it is a course worthy of the Olympics."
The general consensus is that it is a hardtail course, since weight is a factor with all the climbing.
As important as the tough nature of the circuit will be the heat and humidity. Much of the circuit is in dense brush, with little air movement and, given the expected temperatures in the low to mid-30s, many riders are likely to get into difficulty.
It's pretty brutal," agreed Canada's Seamus McGrath, ninth in Athens. "The heat back in the woods is like an oven, and I expect a lot of riders will get into trouble by going out too fast."
The number laps have not yet been released, but riders says that they are expecting six for the women and eight for the men. However, that could change, depending on the weather. Until now, it has been dry, but the rain which caused the postponement of the BMX finals, has made considerable changes to riding the circuit.
So who does the course favour for gold?
On the women's side, Marga Fullana (Spain) and Irina Kalentieva (Russia) have to be considered the top favourites. The short race and power climbs work to the advantage of these small, light climbers; particularly Fullana, with her lightning fast opening laps. But the humid heat will hurt the Spanish rider, who tends to do better in dry heat, and if the race is longer than one hour and 45 minutes she has shown a tendency to fade abruptly.
Two others who can do well here are the Canadian duo of Marie-Helene Premont and Catharine Pendrel. Both are strong technically and do well in the heat and humidity. Neither is a particularly fast starter, but as the race goes on, as others start to wilt they could move up to the front ranks.
Sabine Spitz (Germany), the Olympic bronze medalist, is always a top-three contender, but she is also a slower starter, and may not fare well in the humidity. Neither will defending champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway), who is still coming back from the illness which destroyed last season, and has had a problem in the past with hot and humid conditions.
The American riders, Georgia Gould and Mary McConneloug, don't rank as highly, however, the U.S. should record a top-10 finish. McConneloug is a steady and consistent rider, but not able to match the explosive accelerations of the front runners, while Gould suffers in the extreme heat.
So far, the Chinese have not been mentioned - Ren Chengyuan and Lui Ying. Their condition is a mystery; after a strong start to the season, the pair have been sliding steadily backwards through the World Cups and Worlds. However, that is quite probably a planned taper, and absolutely no one is counting them out, since both have vast experience on the course and are seen as a huge medal hope for China.
Add to the mix the potential for wet and slick conditions - which will favour Kalentieva, Premont and Pendrel - and there is a wide open race.
The Canadian women were some of the only riders to attempt the course in today's rain. According to team manager Dan Proulx, "they both did two laps, experimenting with different tires. Some sections are very greasy. tomorrow should be muddy, but it's not supposed to rain. I think the conditions will help Marie and Catharine."
For the men it is equally open. World champion Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) would be the obvious favourite, but he is still coming back from a knee injury and infection, and hasn't had the racing or training he wanted to in the weeks leading up to the Games.
"It's much better now," said Sauser. "Three weeks ago, I was walking out of a doctor's office with my big cast off and some antibiotics. I can still feel it, but now I can bend it fully."
Julien Absalon (France), the defending Olympic champion, is another obvious choice, but his total collapse and withdrawal from the Worlds in Italy due to heat problems, make him appear vulnerable. A dark horse will be his team mate Jean-Christophe Peraud, who is often overlooked, but who has had very good results earlier this year.
Nino Schurter is a strong medal candidate, despite his youth, as is Burry Stander (South Africa). Jose Hermida (Spain), the Athens silver medalist, has had a season beset by problems, including sickness, crashes and mechanicals. But he is very fit, and extremely motivated to make up for his relatively poor season to date.
"I am here to win. I think it's time to aim for the top. I've had a tough year, with health problems and some problems with the bike, but now I'm in good condition. I was fourth in Sydney and second in Athens, so there is only one place to go."
On the North American side, there are also some outside chances for medals, depending on how the race develops. Geoff Kabush (Canada), number three in the World Cup rankings, is a slow starter, but moves up well in long, hard races of attrition, which this is likely to be. Likewise with his American counterpart Adam Craig. The second American in the race, Todd Wells, often starts well and rides with the leaders, but has had a problem with fading in the last couple of laps during the World Cups. Canadian Seamus McGrath will be looking to improve upon his Athens performance here.
Wet conditions should not make much difference in the men's race, since all the top riders are superb bike handlers.
The Canadian riders took the time to talk with us after their first training sessions.
Catharine Pendrel: "I'm glad to finally be here. The start is still the same, however the descent afterwards is much more challenging than before. They added big rocks, steep climbs and a long switchback climb section. It is hard, but I don't know that it is going to make a difference as to who will do well. It's such a demanding course that I think there will be quite a bit of attrition. The climbs are steep, so it will suit someone with a high power to weight ratio, like Marga [Fullana] at the Worlds."
"I noticed that my strength is better, compared to the test event last fall. Initially, my goal was top-5 - and that is still my goal - because this is a really strong field, but I am feeling more confident that it is within reach. I've been training at home in Kamloops, where it has been 37 degrees, so I'm good with the heat."
Marie-Helene Premont: "It's a nice course, but harder than I thought it would be. It is quite technical, with good descents. For the favourites, for sure Irina, Sabine [Spitz], Fullana - every good climber. For me, a good race will be to do the best that I can and have the feeling that I gave everything I could."
"My preparation went well, with good training and good rest, and I had a very good trip over here. It wasn't so hot at home, but I was able to train inside [where she has built a 'cabana' to simulate high heat], and the heat now isn't so bad, although you can really feel it more in the woods where there is no wind."
Premont also revealed that this may not be her last year of racing, as previously stated. "I'm not sure that this will be my last year of racing, I don't think that I will still be racing in 2010 [when the Worlds are in her home region at Mont Ste Anne], but I think maybe I will race next year."
Seamus McGrath: "It's a good course, one of the more demanding ones I have ever seen. It's the Olympics, hot and humid, technical, no rest, fast descents, hard corners and steep climbs ... a brutal course, relentless, and requires pure fitness. I think it is a power rider's course."
"For sure, there will be a lot of attrition, because I can see people going out really hard and exploding. It's a race where you've got to be able to push in the end, that's when the whole race is going to go down. I like it; the races I do good in are the ones with no rest, and this is similar to Athens in that way."
McGrath also talked about the new equipment he has received for the Olympics. "Fuji did me up a bike with a special paint job; I've got the custom shoes going from Shimano, a special saddle from Selle Italia ... it's fun getting all this custom stuff for the Olympics!"
Geoff Kabush: "I'm pretty excited about the course. There was a lot of speculation that it would be too easy, but now I feel better about the course because it is more technical and suited to me. I'm planning on going with superlight tires ... it's a bit of a risk, but I have a lot of experience with them, so I can get away with it when a lot of riders couldn't. It's a course that I can take advantage of with skills and equipment selection."
"Definitely, I'm an outside shot for a medal, but that's my goal. it will depend on how the race goes. The only thing on my mind is a medal, but I don't have the pressure on me like the favourites, which is nice. The first time I was at the Olympics [Sydney, 2000], it was an unbelievable experience, for sure. But this time I'm not here just to have a solid, good ride, I'm definitely here for a medal. I'm in my prime now, and I'm going to try and make it happen."