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VN Archives: Mountain biking makes its Olympic debut in 1996

Olympic mountain bike racing made its debut at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and we were there to document the historic moment.

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This story was originally published in the August, 1996 edition of VeloNews Magazine. 

Right beside the Georgia International Horse Park near Conyers is a grassy mound the locals call Holy Hill. It’s a sacred place to many, some of whom claim to have seen here the Messiah.

On July 30, 1996, this stretch of green Georgia countryside, with its rolling hills, leafy woods, and rocky outcroppings saw a pilgrimage of another kind: An estimated 30,000 mountain-bike fans hiked from distant parking lots to see the first-ever Olympic mountain-bike cross-country races.

They came from all over the world. We saw Canadians with red maple leafs painted on their faces; dozens of Americans with stars-and-stripes flags; and a whole contingent of Rune Hoydahl fans from Norway, who had their relationship to Rune printed on their T-shirts: “Mother … aunt … mother-in-law … cousin . .. brother-in-law … friend.”

Rain showers had been forecast, but the day dawned with high clouds, bearable humidity, and just a breath of breeze. The biggest enemy for the men in the morning and women in the afternoon would not be sticky Georgia mud, but intense heat (over 90 degrees by midday) and a developing gusty wind that blew against the riders on the longest open stretch — across the steeplechase horse track on deep, spongy grass.

Pezzo was unstoppable in the women’s race. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Photo credit should read MICHAEL JUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

That uphill, head-wind section preceded the 10.63km course’s complicated western loop with its constant steep climbs and downhills, twists and turns between tall trees, singletrack and stream crossings. This is where the key attacks would take place in both races. The more open eastern loop’s prime difficulty was baking hot granite slickrock — whose surface irregularities made the downhill sections a rugged, jarring experience, while riding uphill across it was, “like a furnace,” according to medal favorite Juli Furtado.

The elongated circuit was not particularly spectator-friendly. “We knew that,” said one of the course designers, Dave Wiens, “but we wanted two types of terrain, the technical stuff in the trees and the granite feature.” Even so, hundreds of fans rushed from point to point on the intricate eastern loop, and Wiens himself saw his fiancee Susan DeMattei “about 20 times” in the women’s race, by using his local knowledge to take short cuts on his mountain bike.

His constant support probably helped DeMattei take a hard-earned bronze medal in the afternoon race, albeit 1:45 behind women’s winner Paola Pezzo of Italy, after being left behind by silver medalist Alison Sydor of Canada on the last of three laps.

Earlier, the men’s 48.7km cross-country, as expected, was dominated by the Europeans, who swept the first five places.

Bart the best

Brentjens (right) led for much of the race. (Photo by Gero Breloer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

For the past 18 months, Dutch mountain biker Bart Brentjens has benefited from a full-time coach and manager: the former Tour de France King of the Mountains, Gert-Jan Theunisse (editor’s note: Theunisse tested positive for doping in 1988 and 1990; he coached famed mountain biker Marga Fullana, who confessed to EPO use in 2010.) for Under Theunisse’s stewardship, Brentjens last season took the inaugural Tour de France VIT and the world cross-country championship in Germany. This year, his focus has been the Olympic Games.

In April, Brentjens finished 10th, 24th, and 18th in the first three Grundig World Cup events; and showed improving form in June, with ninth and sixth placings in the two Canadian races. Following his last World Cup appearance at Mont-Ste-Anne, Brentjens and Theunisse (who rides with his protege) underwent three-and-a-half weeks of intense training:- “Mixed road and mountain bike,” said Theunisse. “One day, long and fast, one pay intervals, and sometimes off-road training in the morning and a road race in the afternoon.”

At the end of this period, Brentjens raced in the Dutch national cross-country championship, and won by six-and-a-half minutes. Right after that, he rode the Tour de Liege, a seven-stage road race in the Belgian Ardennes, which finished eight days before the Olympic mountain-bike race. Did Brentjens race hard in Belgium?

“Yes, Bart won the King of the Mountains prize,” Theunisse replied. Interestingly, the 1995 winner of the Liege KOM race was an Italian named Andrea Colinelli, the gold medalist in the men’s pursuit earlier in these Summer Games. Was that an omen?

While 26 countries were represented in the race, there were only 44 starters for this Olympic inaugural event. Significantly, in the four-and-a-half-lap race, they would make two circuits of the hillier western loop before heading toward the granite sections.

The opening stretch across long grass was not so much a charge as a debilitating grind, which saw Italian cyclocross star Luca Bramati dash from the fourth row of the start grid to lead the field into the woods. He was followed in line by Brentjens, Sweden’s Roger Persson, Costa Rica’s Andres Brenes, and Swiss favorite Thomas Frischknecht.

A kilometer later, after the first two short climbs and rutted descents, Bramati and Brentjens were alone in the lead, five seconds ahead of Frischknecht (who was with the other Italian off-road phenomenon, Daniele Pontoni). They were followed by a lone Brenes, then came a group of five that included U.S. champion Tinker Juarez and Denmark’s Lennie Kristensen. Already — only four minutes into the race — it looked as though the big moves had been made.

This was confirmed a few minutes later, following three more climbs, when Bramati came through in the lead, three seconds clear of Brentjens, with Frischknecht and Pontoni 23 seconds back. Caught out by the instant attacks, French standouts Christophe Dupouey and Miguel Martinez were now chasing, 39 seconds back, with Kristensen and Brenes on their wheels. At 50 seconds came Norwegian favorite Hoydahl (who had also been surprised by the fast start) and Persson, while Juarez had dropped back to 58 seconds.

The other American, Don Myrah, was another half-minute back, in 23rd place.

These positions were basically the same after this opening half-lap, with 6.2km covered in 15:58, and four complete laps remaining. Back into the woods, Bramati and Brentjens continued to lead, now 16 seconds ahead of Pontoni, who had dropped Frischkriecht, and 40 seconds clear of the Dupouey-Martinez tandem. The French continued to move up the field, but they weren’t racing as fast as the two Bs in the front

Indeed, on completing the second time around the eastern loop, Brentjens and Bramati were 21 seconds up on Pontoni; 45 seconds on Frischknecht, who was about to be joined by Martinez and Dupouey; and 1:20 on the solo Hoydahl.

Those gaps increased on the first run around the granite loop, so 45 minutes into the race, leaders Brentjens and Bramati had a 1:15 margin over Frischknecht and the two from France (who had passed Pontoni, now at 1:32), and 2:20 on Hoydahl (who was about to be joined by Kristensen, Brenes and Australia’s Cadel Evans).

These positions were about the same when they tackled the next granite loop, roughly halfway through the race. Brentjens simply rode away from the tiring Bramati, Dupouey was dropped by Frischknecht and Martinez, and Hoydahl fell back after a spill.

And so, with two complete laps left, Brentjens was on his own in the lead; Bramati was dropping back quickly, soon to be passed by Frischknecht and Martinez; and the rest of the field followed in ones and twos, down to Juarez and Myrah in 19th
and 20th.

Brentjens, now showing the wisdom of riding that week-long stage race, moved further and further ahead as the race continued. He finished with a winning margin of 2:26 on silver medalist Frischknecht — who dropped Martinez by 22 seconds on the final loop. It was another five minutes before Dupouey came in fourth, ahead of Pontoni, Brenes, Kristensen, Bramati, and Evans (ninth at 8:37). The top North American was Canadian Warren Sallenbach (in 13th), while Juarez came in 19th at 17:37, having dropped Myrah on the last lap.

By now, the midday sun was blasting down on the finishers as they flopped down in exhaustion on the grass. or sought some shade around the team tents. Along with Brentjens, race favorite Frischknecht seemed to be one of the freshest. “It was a very, very hard race,” said the Swiss star. “It was fast from the very beginning. My experience came through … I think I did an excellent race. I had cramps going into the last lap, but I’m more than happy (with second place).”

The youngest finisher, Evans, said, ‘The hardest parts were the big rocks. They were unforgiving. I was really cramping- in places where I’ve never cramped before … in my quads on the descents.”

Juarez, clearly disappointed with his finish after a promising start, said, ‘There was no time to make any recovery … everything was s fast.” Asked about his preparation for the Olympics, Juarez said, “No, I don’t work with a coach – it’s worked every year until this year. Maybe I’ve got to start with a new (year). I just want this one to be over with.”

There were no such regrets from the 27-yearr-old Brentjens. The six-foot two-inch, 167-pound Dutchman is big for a mountain biker, but this course was certainly to his liking.

Off Sydor cedes to inspired Pezzo

Sydor leads the women’s race past spectators in Atlanta. Photo: Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images

A s winner of five World Cup races in one year, Alison Sydor was considered almost a shoo-in for the women’s gold medal. But while the Canadian had been burning up the mountain-bike circuit (followed by a ride with the Canadian national team at the women’s Giro d’Italia), Pezzo was picking and choosing her events, in between regular high-altitude training camps under the guidance of her personal coach, Paolo Rosola — a former Italian pro road sprinter.

After losing the gold medal to Pezzo by l:96, Sydor said she wasn’t surprised: “I thought [Pezzo] was one of the favorites, all along, and she had an awesome day. I knew at the start that I wasn’t having an awesome day.” But being the canny rider she is, Sydor took the lead from the start – “I was leading to keep things under control,” she said.

Unlike the men’s race, which unfolded in those first hectic minutes, the women’s three-lap, 31.9km event was much slower in developing. The first significant move came midway I around the opening western loop, whose constant ups and downs saw four riders emerge at the front: Sydor, her permanent rival Juli Furtado, Laurence Leboucher of France, and Pezzo.

They were caught at first by Slovakia’s Eva Orvosova-Lowe. Then, out on the steeplechase course, DeMattei, Gunn-Rita Dahle of Norway, Regina Marunde of Germany, Sandra Temporelli of Italy, and Kathy Lynch of New Zealand latched on to the leaders.

The climb over the bare granite, which was followed by a single-track slalom descent through the trees and a couple of stream crossings, again sifted out the weaker riders. Sydor, Furtado, Leboucher, Dahle and DeMattei now formed the lead group, while Pezzo went too fast into one of the tight hairpin turns and fell off, grazing her knees. Dahle, too, had a spill; Canada’s Lesley Tomlinson had a much harder tumble, but bravely continued to place 13th; and Britain’s Caroline Alexander crashed and was forced to abandon with a damaged derailleur.

Pezzo, however, was soon up and running after her fall, and by the end of the lap was within 19 seconds of catching the leaders who had been momentarily joined by Orvosova-Lowe. (The Colorado-based Slovak rider might have stayed there had she not started suffering from cramps) Pezzo was chasing in the company of her teammate Annabella Stropparo and the Dutch rider Elsbeth Vink.

With Sydor still riding conservatively, the chasing trio slowly regained terrain through the twisting technical section, and just after making contact with the five leaders, Pezzo used her momentum to make a tremendous uphill attack.

“When Paola went by, there was no one who could stay with her,” Sydor later said.

Sydor and DeMattei (right) joined Pezzo on the podium. Photo credit should read AFP-IOP/AFP via Getty Images)

Pezzo’s sudden move exploded the group, and DeMattei and Sydor were the only ones able to start the semblance of a chase. Furtado simply went backward, losing two minutes in the next 3km. Afterward, with tears welling up behind misty eyes, Furtado said, “I’m totally disappointed. I wanted a medal … but I couldn’t handle the heat I kept hoping my body would cool down.”

By the end of this half loop, midway through the race, Pezzo was 25 seconds ahead of Sydor and DeMattei; and 37 seconds ahead of Dahle, with Vink at a dsitant 1:15. Dahle got bock to Sydor and DeMattei, but at the bell, they were 1:14 behind Pezzo, with Vink another minute behind

Back on the technical loop, with the gap up to 1:42, Dahle made a mistake at the foot of one of the downhills, forcing DeMattei to brake hard, and allowing Sydor to break clear. With only the final loop remaining, 1:32 behind Pezzo, Sydor was already 30 seconds ahead of DeMattei, and more than a minute clear of Dahle. The medals had been decided, and even though Sydor closed to within 1:00 at the end, that was only because Pezzo took things carefully through the final kilometers, before zipping up her skinsuit and dapping her hands above her head to celebrate her memorable Olympic title.

Taped to the stem of Pezzo’s bike is a small religious medal, featuring the Madonna and Child Carrying that totem, perhaps her victory was inevitable on this course next to Holy Hill.

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