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By Fred Dreier
Maris Strombergs put Latvia on top of the BMX world by taking the inaugural Olympic gold medal in flying fashion. The 21-year-old Latvian, who won the BMX world title earlier this year, earned Latvia its first medal of the 2008 Olympics, crossing the line ahead of Americans Mike Day and Donny Robinson.
“It didn’t matter if it was the Olympics, the world championships or the European championships, the feeling is the same,” Strombergs said. “I was very cool and concentrated.”
Strombergs sprinted out of the gate with a slight advantage on Day, who hails from Santa Clarita, California. Day had dominated the early qualifying runs, winning ever heat during Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the Californian rode just a hair behind the Latvian in the finals.
Aussie Jared Graves surprised the field with an impressive surge on the course’s second jump-filled straightaway. But the Aussie crashed after South African Sifoso Nhlapo bobbled the second turn. Both men tumbled to the ground. The scene was reminiscent of Graves’ bum luck at the 2008 world four-cross championships, where he was crashed out by another competitor while in the lead.
It was the last crash of a day full of pileups, as riders bumped and bounced into each other on the Laoshan track’s tight turns and jumps.
“I think everyone is riding above their heads because it’s the Olympics,” Graves said. “Everyone is going flat out, which I think is causing a lot of the crashes. Many people are riding stupid. But that’s racing; that’s how it goes.”
Day and Robinson survived the carnage to bring home the silver and the bronze for the United States — only the second and third medals earned by American male cyclists.
The two medals, matched with Jill Kintner’s bronze in the women’s BMX competition, proved the value of the big-dollar BMX track USA Cycling built in Chula Vista, California. The U.S. facility, an exact replica of the Laoshan course, served as the training grounds for America’s BMX team in the lead up to the Olympics.
“With the months of training on that track, it was really helpful,” Day said. “I’ve spent the last eight months living [in Chula Vista], and now I’m here with a medal around my neck. It was great to have it up.”
Competition took place one day after heavy rains forced its postponement by 24 hours. BMX is a fair-weather sport, and heavy tarps protected the dirt track from rain damage. Riders awoke on Friday morning to clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Temperatures rose steadily into the 80’s with humidity peaking at mid morning. Conditions were hot and sticky.
The men and women kicked off at 9 a.m. sharp so the televised production could air in the United States. Robinson, who hails from Napa, California, said the crashes, tight racing and big-air jumps provided viewers real entertainment, and a realistic view of BMX racing.
“We knew we needed to perform and put on a great show — if we didn’t do it, BMX might not come back,” Robinson said. “I think we put on a great show, and hopefully we’ll be back in 2012 in London.”
Men’s individual Final
1. Maris Strombergs (Latvia), 36.190
2. Mike Day (USA), 36.606
3. Donny Robinson (USA), 36.972
4. Andres Jimenez (Colombia), 39.137
5. Rob Wildenberg van den (Netherlands), 39.772
6. Jared Graves (Australia), 2:19.233
7. Sifiso Nhlapo (South Africa), DNF
8. Damien Godet (France), DNF