To prep for the Rio Games, team road manager Gabriele Uboldi and I packed our bags and flew to Park City, Utah. Until now, the summer of 2016 had been hot, hard, and fun. For the next few weeks, it was going to be hot and fun but only as hard as we wanted it to be. I didn’t get those four hundred miles of trails in Park City all to myself though. No. There was a new contender on the horizon.
A man for whom no obstacle was too great, no mountain too high, no descent too frightening. Who was this superhero? Surely not Gabriele, the mild-mannered manager . . . on an electric bike.
I couldn’t shake him. I’d blast up a hill in the thin Utah atmosphere, and there he’d be, grinning from ear to ear. Those few weeks . . . it was like I was 18 in Žilina again. Magical. We’d concocted this plan because it seemed like fun, but here I was, chock-full to the gills of the first new motivation I’d had in seven years. Don’t get me wrong, I love road racing. It’s the life I’ve chosen, and it’s been amazing to me. But the calendar leaves your life prescribed. Press conferences bring the same dull questions every day. You remember the streets, the corners, and the hills, and your successes or your failures just drive you to do it again and do it better each time. But this was different. It was new, and I hadn’t done “new” for a long time.
By the time we were jetting to Rio, I was as pumped as I’d ever been. Bouncing off the walls. Remembering the booming midnight music coming through the paper-thin walls of the London Olympic Village, sharing a room with young guys you’ve never met and the constant efforts of boy trying to meet girl, Giovanni, Gabriele, and Specialized had shunned the Rio Olympic equivalent and come up trumps. We had a beautiful apartment to ourselves on the beach. Every night we put our feet up, drank fresh coconut water straight from the shell, and reminded ourselves just how bloody lucky we were.
A few weeks ahead of the Games, we hooked up with Christoph Sauser. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a roadie and don’t know who Christoph is. Take it from me: The man is an MTB legend. Hailing from Switzerland, he won a medal at the Sydney Olympics, was world champion in 2008, and best of all won the aptly named Cape Epic in South Africa no fewer than five times. He has retired—a couple of times, like George Foreman or Frank Sinatra—since then, but the man is still a mean rider. Above and beyond all that, he is Mr. Specialized when it comes to mountain biking, and my bike suppliers were pulling out all the stops to help me in Rio. Thank you, Specialized: Riding with Christoph wasn’t just useful; it was bloody brilliant. Christoph was pleased with how little pace I’d lost over my years away from the fat tires, and it was true, each ride was like going from beginner to expert in an hour. Brilliant fun. I’d wobble and dab my foot in the first couple of corners, then on the way back down I’d be sliding sideways down a huge scree slope with 100 percent control. I’d race round the banked planks of north shore corners with 10-meter drops on either side like I was descending the Poggio.
Race time. The circuit was fun but tricky. It was also really hard to overtake someone, a bit like Formula One. Technical, narrow, with loads of obstacles that required total concentration, certainly not things that you could ignore while trying to pass another guy. It was fun because of the tricks you had to pull, and amusing stuff like sand traps in the shape of Havaianas flip-flops. Another Formula One similarity was the starting grid, and this was my first and most serious problem. Not being a regular MTB racer, I had no form and no points to give me a good start position. If it had really been like F1, we could have turned the whole race into a week’s worth of testing and qualifying, but we’re obviously not as savvy as those crafty media manipulators in motor racing, and I had to start where my nonexistent world ranking said I should be. At the back.
When I say the back, stone-cold last would give you the most accurate picture. There were 50 guys between me and the start line. By the time I crossed it, the clock would have been ticking, wheels spinning, people cheering, and the front riders disappearing into the middle distance. Sounds bad? If it had been a World Cup race, there might have been as many as 200 guys separating me from my clear destiny as Olympic MTB champion.
The first section of the lap was inside the stadium they had built to give spectators the best view. There were some backward-and-forward sections, a bit like the line at airport security, but it was wide and fast, unlike the course proper. I knew that once the stadium was behind us, overtaking someone would be a hundred times more difficult than in that first 60 seconds of a one-and-a-half-hour race.
For one of the first occasions in my career, I had a plan. As we lined up, each guy wiggling a little bit to get the best position, but kept in line by the officials trying to keep it fair, I went the other way. I backed up about 3 meters behind the penultimate line of riders. With the other 50-odd starters wedged into a 5-meter space, I looked ridiculous. I imagined them snickering at the dickhead roadie who was scared of getting knocked off in the free-for-all. The countdown started at 10. At five, I clicked into my right pedal. At three, I set off, clicking into the other pedal and going hell-for-leather through the startled lines of those patiently waiting. I thought: It can’t be a false start. I haven’t crossed the start line, right?
After three turns of the stadium, I was in third place. The guys who started on the front of the grid were in about 20th. I don’t know much about MTB racing, it’s true, so I’m ready for somebody to explain to me some day what their strategy was. Mine was clear. Relax. Take it easy. There were seven laps ahead of us, and the first one would be the fastest. Breathe, see how it’s going, don’t kill yourself. Follow the wheel of somebody good—if he was second in the Olympic MTB race, he was probably pretty decent—and see how the pros do it. It’ll open up later. And the last time I had to fight for the finish of an important race after an hour and a half, I’d probably been about 15. I reckoned that if it came to a late fight on the last lap, I’d back myself to have something left in the tank. Stay in contention. As Jose Mourinho would say: Stay in the game.
Lap 1 went pretty well. I went through the pits and gave my guys a confident nod. That would be the last time that day that anything went well.
Immediately after the pits, I got a tricky section wrong and totally shredded my front tire on some big sharp rocks. Mountain bike racing comes from a long history of self-sufficiency. In my junior days, we’d hear stories of professionals stuffing grass into their tires to fix punctures or finishing races with only one side of their handlebars. The legacy of this proud tradition is that you’re not allowed service or outside help on the circuit except at the two designated pit areas. And you’re not allowed to go backward. Shit. I ran half a lap with a flat front tire. You know that old joke about your tire only being flat at the bottom? Well, mine wasn’t. It was flapping about like a seagull with a broken wing. So I ran like a Muppet for about two and a half kilometers to reach the other pit area. During that time, I discovered that it was actually quite easy to overtake someone out on the circuit after all. Just make sure he was the Slovakian bloke pushing his bike while everybody else is riding theirs.
I hopped back on occasionally and jumped off when it got bumpy. It was properly messed up when I got my new wheel, and I was relieved to feel like a cyclist rather than a moronic street entertainer again. I was in about 20th, I guessed. I faced up to the reality that it was unlikely that the 19 or so men in front of me were all bad enough to get caught by me but thought that I could maybe make the top 10 and regain some dignity. I got back up to the top 10 and breathed hard. Not so bad. Let’s see how high we can go. I went through the pits and gave them another nod. And then I flatted again!
This one was really annoying and totally avoidable. It was a slow puncture in the rear, and it dawned on me agonizingly that I’d actually sustained it before the pits. If I’d been a bit more on the ball, I could have had a bike swap in seconds. As it was, I was back to running for another delightful half a lap.
Have you ever run in mountain bike shoes? The cleat is recessed into the sole to allow you to walk about in them, whether you’ve punctured at the Olympics, need to climb over a gate, or just go into the cafe for a slice of cake. Running is another matter as there is no flex in the sole whatsoever. You can’t spring like in running shoes, your heel rubs like crazy as your foot bends but the shoe doesn’t, and there’s always a good chance of twisting your ankle on a rock. I was just thinking that when I twisted my ankle on a rock.
I finished 35th, a lap behind the winner and Christoph’s countryman, Nino Schurter.
For five minutes I was spitting mad. Gabri knows better than to come near me when I’m angry. Better than that, he knows to keep everybody else away too, and for that I am always grateful. He’s always a good friend, but great friends are there when you need them most, and that’s him. But after that five minutes, I had a sudden memory of the look on all of the other riders’ faces at the start when I began charging through them all after my starting run-up. I couldn’t help but laugh.
People said I was unlucky, but mountain bikers know that punctures aren’t luck, they’re things you need to be a good enough bike rider to avoid if you want to win races. And I hadn’t been good enough. Strong enough? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s immaterial. You don’t win races just by being strong, otherwise it would be Body, Burghardt, Giovanni, or Yates sitting here telling you about their rainbow jerseys. You’ve got to be strong, sure, but there’s other stuff you need, and in Rio I didn’t have it. So it wasn’t my destiny to be Olympic mountain bike champion after all. But we had a bloody good laugh.
Republished from My World by Peter Sagan, with permission of VeloPress.