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The 2021 Olympic mountain bike race nearly ended up down in the dumps. No, really.
In early 2014, officials with the UCI traveled to the Japanese capital to examine potential spots for the cycling races. At the time, local officials hoped to hold the cross-country mountain bike race on Yumenoshima, an offshore district of Tokyo named “Dream Island” by the locals. The soaring man-made island was constructed over decades, and for much of the 20th century, the island was built using garbage from the nearby super metropolis.
After the UCI officials toured the facility, they decided that perhaps the off-road event — which traces its roots back to the soaring mountains of coastal California — would be better held elsewhere.
“It was not great,” said Simon Burney, the off-road racing manager with the UCI. “There was not enough elevation. There were drains coming out everywhere, and the thing is in the landing route for the airport. It wouldn’t have been an ideal spot.”
Luckily, the UCI chose another site near the city of Izu, about 150 kilometers outside of Tokyo, where the Olympic velodrome and BMX park now sit. Officials saw the hilly forest as an ideal location for a punishing race, and in 2018 famed course designer Nick Floros traveled to the venue to begin cutting trails.
Floros, the designer of the routes in Rio de Janeiro and London, found a completely different venue in Tokyo. While the other two Olympic venues lacked elevation and natural features, in Tokyo Floros and his crew found steep hills, trees, and roots.
For 2021 Floros and his crew have designed a 4.1km route that twists and turns through the forest, and packs in five super steep if short climbs along the way, with each climb followed by a harrowing drop or rocky descent. Each lap includes 500 or so feet of climbing. And when ridden at high speed, and over the full distance, the lap packs plenty of punch.
“XC course is gonna be a huge challenge,” wrote reigning Olympic silver medalist Maja Włoszczowska on social media. “Extremely steep climbs followed [by] rocky downhills. I have to admit that I’ve never (and I’m racing over 20 years) seen such a demanding lap.”
Burney believes the course will crown a complete Olympic champion. The climbs are steep and technical, so they will test a rider’s balance and power. The descents are true tests of bravery and skill. So challenging is the course that multiple riders crashed out during a test event in 2019, among them Kate Courtney and current world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. The X-factor in Burney’s mind, however, will be the racing conditions. The Izu peninsula is often hot and humid in August. How riders react to the heat and humidity could decide who wins.
“It’s so steep, and they will be putting out massive watts while riding slowly, that heat is going to hit them very hard because they won’t have any wind to cool them down,” Burney said. “The ability to deal with the heat will be really important.”
No matter the conditions on the day, the 2021 Olympic MTB race will be one to watch.