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Olympic Games notebook: USA Cycling hoping for BMX, track bounce after slow medals start

Since 1984, the U.S. cycling team has won at least one medal in Olympic Games competition, and the pressure is building going into BMX and track.

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Amber Neben and her fifth-place in the elite women’s time trial is the best result so far for USA Cycling, which was hoping to leave Tokyo with a fist-full of medals in the Olympic Games.

With mountain bike and road cycling both completed, the U.S. still has yet to hit the medals column so far in these Tokyo Games.

At the midway point of the Olympics for cycling, USA Cycling is hoping for a bounce in BMX and track cycling to bring home some Olympic hardware.

Also read: USA Cycling misses medals in time trials

Time to hit the panic button?

Well, not quite yet.

Though the team was hoping for more in road and mountain bike competitions, USA Cycling is still optimistic it will hit some of its targets in the second half of the Games.

BMX and track cycling both offer a new slate of promising medal-scoring opportunities.

What’s been going on?

The U.S. team has been knocking on the door so far for medals with a string of top-10s, but in the Olympics, where only the top-3 see medals, it’s been a series of close-calls and near-misses.

In men’s road racing, Brandon McNulty was in pole position for a podium when he and eventual gold medalist Richard Carapaz escaped late in the race. McNulty — who paced to 24th in the time trial Wednesday — was popped with 5km to go in the road race, but hung on to the chasing group to finish sixth, the best so far on the men’s side in road and mountain biking.

Also read: Power analysis in elite men’s road race

Coryn Rivera was seventh in the women’s road race, finishing in the lead bunch, while Neben was just 11 seconds off the podium in the women’s time trial in fifth.

Chloé Dygert, who will lead the track push in the women’s Team Pursuit, was missing some of trademark depth in both the time trial and road race in what was her first major international road races since her devastating crash in the 2020 world championship time trial when she suffered a deep gash to her left leg.

In mountain biking, an overnight storm ahead of the women’s race resulted in last-minute changes to key sectors of the course, with lines being altered on several decisive parts of the loop just hours before racing. That seemed to knock pre-race favorite Kate Courtney off-balance, and she ultimately finished in 15th. Haley Batten led the U.S. colors with a ninth-place finsh.

Also read: Top-10 another step in right direction for Batten

The U.S. team is doing the best it can, but it’s not quite been good enough for Olympic medals so far.

Historically, the United States has done well in Olympic Games competition in cycling.

The disciplines and events have evolved and changed during the Olympics’ century-plus history, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the U.S. ranks fifth overall in Olympic Games medals in cycling, behind France, Italy, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.

In fact, an American — Burt Downing — ranks high on the all-time list of medalists for a single Games when he won six medals in cycling, way back in 1904.

Olympic Games events have come and gone over the years. Many of the track disciplines and long-distance time trials are gone. New sports, such as mountain biking and BMX, have been added.

The high-water mark for U.S. cycling in Olympic competition came in 1984 in Los Angeles, when Americans won a record nine medals in a year that the Soviet bloc boycotted the Summer Games.

Looking back at cycling competition since 1996, when mountain biking was introduced as an Olympic sport, the United States has delivered 21 Olympic medals during six Olympic Games in the 20-year span from 1996 to 2016.

Five of those were gold medals: Marty Nothstein won the individual sprint in 2000, Connor Fields won in men’s BMX in 2016, and Kristin Armstrong won three consecutive golds from 2008-16 in the individual time trial. The other medals came in time trials, mountain bike, and track.

USA Cycling came home with five medals in both 2008 and 2016, so this year’s stated goal of seven is ambitious in a historical context.

So what’s left? USA Cycling is hoping to hit medals in women’s Team Pursuit and Omnium, where it’s won silver medals in 2012 and 2016. Team anchor Sarah Hammer, who won silver in the Omnium and drove the team pursuit team effort across two Olympic cycles, is retired, so the pressure will be on Dygert and Jennifer Valente, who will be racing both the Omnium and Team Pursuit.

Also read: How to watch team pursuit on the track

USA Cycling also has high hopes for both men’s and women’s BMX, which features racing as well as the inclusion of BMX freestyle this year as a new Olympic discipline.

The pressure is on to bring home at least some medals.

Since 1996, USA Cycling has never left an Olympic cycle with less than two medals.

In fact, 1976 was the last Olympic Games that the U.S. cycling team hasn’t brought home at least one medal — the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

Of course, with renewed attention on athletes’ mental health, putting pressure for an entire federation on cyclists in track and BMX might seem a bit unfair.

Yet as most of the athletes will say, they’re there to win.

So let’s see what happens in the second half of the cycling competition.

Jenny Rissveds relieved she no longer has to carry the Olympic burden

Winning an Olympic medal is always what it’s cracked up to be.

In 2016, Jenny Rissveds was the surprise winner in the women’s mountain bike event, and became the youngest mountain biker to win gold at 22. Now five years later, the Swedish rider is relieved someone else can carry the burden of the title of Olympic champion.

“I’m just so f**ing happy that it’s over,” Rissveds told journalists in Tokyo. “Not just the race today (being over) but all these years (since Rio 2016), to not have to carry that title anymore. I have a name and I hope that I can be Jenny now and not the Olympic champion because that is a heavy burden.

“I hope that I will be left alone now.”

https://twitter.com/UCI_MTB/status/1417855482962878467

Jolanda Neff of Switzerland, who blasted to victory in a dominant win Tuesday, now has that weight and expectation of being the Olympic champion.

Also read: Neff powers to gold in women’s mountain bike race

Rissveds admitted she struggled with all the attention that came with the gold medal.

She also suffered two deaths within the family in 2017, and fell into depression under pressure to live up to her Rio de Janeiro success. Struggling with mental health problems and an eating disorder, Rissveds took a break from the sport.

She didn’t race her first World Cup race until May 2019, and won a World Cup three months later.

No longer the Olympic champion, Rissveds just want to have fun on the bike.

“It’s really fun to cycle, then it’s not always that fun to compete, because that involves so many things beyond the cycling,” she said, after finishing more than five minutes off the winner

“It’s a very long race, so you get quite a lot of time to think, and I was torn between giving up or continuing. I ended up wanting to finish because it’s so much more than a race. I’m very proud to have done two Olympic Games now,” she said.

“I’ve got the world championships (in Val di Sole, Italy, in August) and two World Cup competitions, and then we will see. I look forward to touching down, taking it easy, and perhaps getting a closure of the past few years.”

Historic podium sweep in women’s mountain bike

Switzerland’s sweep of the women’s mountain bike is a first in women’s mountain bike cycling Olympic history.

“I think we all did an amazing race,” said gold medalist Jolanda Neff. “Before, if someone said we were going to do a one-two-three, winning all the medals, I don’t think anyone would have believed it, so it’s pretty amazing for the whole team.”

On the men’s side, defending Olympic champion Nino Schurter missed out on what would have been his fourth consecutive Olympic podium when he was fourth in the men’s cross-country mountain bike event.

Milestones in men’s time trial

Primoz Roglič’s gold medal is the first-ever for a Slovenian in cycling, and it’s going to be a big deal back home. It’s the second gold of these Games, matching the previous record when Slovenia brought home two golds from the 2000 Sydney Games.

Silver medalist Tom Dumoulin, back from his hiatus, becomes the first Dutch rider to win two Olympic medals in cycling. He was also silver in Rio de Janeiro in the time trial.

Dumoulin, who races for Jumbo-Visma, said he will return to racing full-time, and said he hopes to compete in the world championships in Belgium in September.

Bronze medalist Rohan Dennis became the second Australian to win a medal in road cycling and track cycling, after Kathy Watt in 1992. Dennis also won silver in the team pursuit in track cycling in London in 2012.

What’s next — BMX takes center stage

BMX takes over cycling for the next few days. Thursday is qualifying for the men’s and women’s finals in BMX racing on Friday.

BMX freestyle makes its Olympic debut Saturday with seeding runs, and gold medals up for grabs Sunday.