24 years after Connie Carpenter’s Olympic win, Kristin Armstrong strikes gold
By Fred Dreier
Kristin Armstrong’s transformation from world-class cyclist to American hero began the moment she stepped off her time trial bike beneath the ominous Badaling section of China’s Great Wall.
Reporters called her name, beckoning for a few short words. Television cameras swarmed the green-eyed American, as two helicopters buzzed overhead.
Sweaty and exhausted, Armstrong was greeted by hugs from USA Cycling staff and her husband of less than one year, Joe Savola. Reporters, staff, and even Armstrong herself knew the 34:51 finishing time over the mountainous 23km time trial — the new best mark — had a damn good chance of withstanding the remaining five riders. When the day’s final rider, Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel, fell dismally short, Armstrong broke into tears and raised her hands in victory.
And the media machine began rolling.
A mob of reporters waited for Armstrong at the post-race press conference, armed with questions ranging from her preparation for the event, to her legendary type-A personality, to her future party plans once she arrived back in her hometown of Boise, Idaho.
A few even ventured to ask her to explain her relation to Lance Armstrong.
“It’s a dream. I’ve worked really hard the last four years for this,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been in my own world for the last six weeks. I’ve been in this little bubble. For these next two weeks I just want to sit back and relax and enjoy this moment. I want to be real — be myself. It’s time to celebrate.”
The celebration would come, but first the machine rolled on. Next on Armstrong’s plate was NBC’s “Managing Victory” team — a program that guides United States medal winners through the often-daunting crush of interviews that follow a medal-winning performance. The team van showed up in Badaling to whisk Armstrong off to meet the rights-holding NBC press. Matt Lauer and Al Roker needed a few hours to brush up on their cycling, so the “Today Show” got bumped to the following night. Armstrong went live with NBC-affiliate morning shows in Boise, Chicago and Kansas City. Then NBC’s wire service got a crack. Non-rights holders ESPN and CNN were next, along with China Central TV, The New York Times and a host of local and national radio stations.
Not surprisingly, she fielded more Lance Armstrong questions.
“I could win a gold medal, and people on the street would still ask me about Lance,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “But that’s okay. I don’t think he has a gold medal.”
The extra attention was the proverbial 15 minutes of fame that greets every newly crowned Olympic champion. But the television appearances, news and radio interviews also marked the first wave in the redefinition of Kristin Armstrong. The titles multi-time national champion and 2006 world champion no longer matter. The phrase “Olympic Champ” is the one that opens doors, drops jaws, wins over sponsors and adds zeros to paychecks.
Perhaps these thoughts splashed through Armstrong’s mind as she sat in the press conference at the Badaling time-trial course and smiled at the cameras. Just one day after her 35th birthday, Armstrong was no doubt realizing that the gamble she had taken by pursuing a career as a cyclist eight years earlier had just paid off. Big time.
“It’s the ride of my life,” Armstrong said. “It’s what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. I am going to have to pinch myself right now.”
Putting the U.S. back on Top
Connie Carpenter’s victory and Rebecca Twigg’s silver at the inaugural women’s road race in Los Angeles in 1984 got the U.S. off on the right foot for Olympics road racing. But strongwomen from Australia and Germany, as well as France’s legendary Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, shut the U.S. road racers out from 1988-2008.
American women fared better in the time trial, which was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta. Mari Holden took silver at the 2000 games in Sydney and Dede Barry grabbed silver in Athens in 2004. The success of American men in the time trial — Lance Armstrong took bronze in 2000 and Tyler Hamilton and Bobby Julich won gold and bronze in 2004 — stood as a testament to the nation’s overall strength in the race against the clock.
The United States did not choose Kristin Armstrong to ride the time trial in 2004 — a last-minute decision awarded the second spot to Christine Thorburn who finished fourth. The decision, Armstrong said, fueled her fire to focus on the race of truth.
“Four years ago is when [Beijing] really became a goal; I told myself that [a medal] was attainable,” Armstrong said.
She set to work with her coach Jim Miller to mold her body into a machine capable of sustaining big-watt efforts, the kind needed to win time trials. A former triathlete, Armstrong had switched to road cycling in 2000 after osteoarthritis in her hips limited her running. But Miller found that Armstrong’s big engine — she was a former top-level swimmer — had no problem adapting.
“She was good from the get go — I just told her she had to learn how to race bikes,” Miller said. “The big step for her was just learning how to be efficient on the bike.”
Results came quickly. She stormed to the U.S. title in 2005, and then showed she had the legs to compete internationally by taking bronze at the world championships, just 37 seconds behind the world’s best, Karin Thurig of Switzerland. A year later came the result of her career – she won gold at worlds.
“After [winning bronze in 2005] I told myself I could be a medalist in Beijing,” Armstrong said. “When I won [gold] in  I knew I wanted gold.”
But first there came the wake up call. Eleven months ago Kupfernagle handily snatched Armstrong’s rainbow jersey away after pummeling the American by 23 seconds. The loss was a clear message — Armstrong and Miller needed to up their game for Beijing.
That meant addressing the minute details of time trialing. Miller headed to Beijing and scouted the time trial course, riding it 30 or so times and collecting GPS data. The two plotted a route in Boise to mimic the 23.5km course. Armstrong hit the wind tunnel twice in 2008. She experimented with different hip angles on her bike and wheel combinations to try and squeeze every mechanical advantage. She came to Beijing toting four different bicycles and nine race wheels.
Armstrong’s meticulous preparation earned her chuckles from coaches and her USA teammates. But no one doubted that addressing the little things couldn’t hurt.
“On the U.S. team we have Type-A, Type Double-A and Type Triple-A,” said Thorburn. “I’m double. She’s [Armstrong] is triple.”
Armstrong attributed her Triple-A personality to being raised in a military family.
The media was there to greet Armstrong when she landed in Boise, along with a crowd of hundreds of children from the local YMCA, where she leads swim classes. On August 16, Boise celebrated “Kristin Armstrong Day,” and Armstrong led a hundreds-strong celebration bike ride from the YMCA to City Hall, her gold medal in her back jersey pocket. Boise’s mayor awarded Armstrong the key to the city and asked for an autograph.
Armstrong’s transformation was complete.
Levi Descends to Bronze
Fourth place is the most heartbreaking spot for any Olympian, and Levi Leipheimer appeared on course to finish just there in the waning miles of the men’s time trial. The Badaling Pass course featured a 12.4km gradual climb and then an even more gradual, wide-open descent back to the start/finish. The Californian paced himself well over the two-lap, 47km course, but with the descent left, Leipheimer was still 35 seconds behind Spain’s Alberto Contador, who was third on the road behind Fabian Cancellara and Gustav Larsson.
Contador blazed the first lap, ascending the 10.8km rise in 17:49, the fastest of any rider that day. But the Spaniard suffered on the descent, which favored bigger riders. He limped home on the final descent in 13:20, 15th fastest. That was where Leipheimer made his move, mashing his 53×11 gear. Leipheimer’s time of 12:37 for the 12.7km descent was only eclipsed by winner Fabian Cancellara’s 12:13.
“I knew my splits — I was always fourth. But I knew [Contador] was slowing down a little bit,” Leipheimer said. “I felt incredible down the hill the last time. When you get the sense that you’re in the hunt, it gives you the adrenaline.”
The effort gave Leipheimer the bronze.
“It’s one of the highlights of my career,” he said.
Team loyalties brushed aside as Cancellara goes it alone
By Andrew Hood
Finally an Olympic road race that lived up to its name. The notion that the Olympic Games road race was somehow an extension of professional loyalties or that the pros hadn’t fully embraced the Olympic ethos was finally put to rest in a tense, action-packed 245km race along the spectacular ramparts of China’s Great Wall.
When Spain’s Samuel Sánchez darted his way to the gold medal ahead of Italy’s Davide Rebellin and Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara in a six-up sprint in a rising, 400m finish, the world was left gasping.
A hard course, brutal conditions and thrilling racing added up to the most exhilarating Olympic race since the pros first entered the fray in the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
There was no love lost among the riders in this year’s Games, however. Riders who race as mercenaries during the entire season turned against each other, with personal ambitions and national loyalties overriding the paycheck that buys loyalty throughout the rest of the year.
Team CSC-Saxo Bank had no fewer than 14 riders in the men’s road race, but it was Italy vs. Spain vs. Luxembourg as riders were true to their nations and risked all for gold medal glory in the key moments.
Riding without any Swiss teammates at all, Cancellara single-handedly undercut the chances of CSC-Saxo Bank teammate Andy Schleck of taking what looked to be at least a bronze medal. Schleck slammed his water bottle on the ground in disgust at the finish line after a disappointing fifth.
“I am angry with Fabian. I will tell him what I think tonight,” Schleck said. “We’re teammates, but today he was racing for Switzerland and I was racing for Luxembourg. Today was my day, so I am very disappointed.”
That gesture alone suggests the pros were leaving it all on the road in Beijing. There were no deals or arrangements either, a la Telekom’s sweep of the medals in Sydney in 2000 when Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden divvied up the medals.
The younger Schleck proved he had the best legs in a brutal race, attacking on the last of seven laps on the upper reaches of the 12km stair-stepped climb up the Badaling Great Wall section, dropping everyone but a dogged Rebellin and a stubborn Sánchez, who bridged on the false flat on the summit.
The leaders swooped down the two-lane highway descent nursing a slender, 15-second gap with 10km to go to the chasing Aussie Michael Rogers and Alexandr Kolobnev (another CSC rider), but a leaner and meaner Cancellara had something else in mind.
Four kilos lighter after the Tour de France, Cancellara went straight from Paris to Beijing to acclimate, to get used to the heat and to put the finishing touches on his Olympic preparation.
It worked. Cancellara took a surprise bronze on the road and roared into the gold medal in the men’s time trial four days later, erasing a six-second gap at the top of the Badaling climb to Gustav Larsson (yes, another CSC rider) to snatch gold by 33 seconds.
Over the top of the Badaling climb, Cancellara blew past Christian Vande Velde — “There was no way to stay with him,” Vande Velde said — and caught Rogers and Kolobnev. The chasing trio latched onto Sánchez, Schleck and Rebellin with less than a kilometer to go.
Instead of barreling straight through to risk all for gold, Cancellara caught his breath and knocked two CSC teammates out of medal contention to claim bronze.
“I raced alone today, no teammates,” Cancellara said. “Today we raced as nations. Tomorrow we’re teammates again on our professional teams. Today was for me and for Switzerland.”
The scintillating finale was a just reward for a long and arduous journey from Beijing to two dazzling sections of the Great Wall.
The race was like a rolling postcard for the beautiful spots of post-Mao Beijing, starting in the shadow of the Temple of Heaven, built in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, past Tiananmen Square (and that famous painting of Mao over the entrance of the Forbidden City) and north toward the mountains.
Then the unexpected happened on the 75km of flats which aimed toward seven, 24.9km loops: a potentially dangerous breakaway of two dozen riders escaped off the front.
The presence of dangerous riders like Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), Jens Voigt (Germany) and recent Tour de France champ Carlos Sastre (Spain) meant this wasn’t going to be another leisurely stroll before two fast-paced final laps to decide the spoils.
Temperatures dipped into the 90s and 93-percent humidity at the start, coupled with that infamous Beijing smog, created unsavory conditions.
“It feels like you have hot cream all over your body,” said Juan José Haedo (another CSC rider). “Once you go full-gas, you cannot breathe.”
George Hincapie, competing in his fifth Olympic Games, broke into a sweat before the race got under way. “I can count on one hand the number of races I’ve started to sweat before the race starts,” said Hincapie, who ended up 40th. “It’s the hardest Olympics I’ve ever done. It was a race of attrition.”
The U.S. team put Jason McCartney (yet another CSC rider) on the front to help tamp down the breakaway. When things came back together for the final two laps, Sastre switched into domestique role.
Sastre and Alberto Contador — winners of the last two Tours de France — rode unselfishly in the decisive late stages, not for their respective professional teammates, but their captains Sánchez and pre-race favorite Alejandro Valverde.
With one lap to go, everyone was waiting for pre-race favorites Valverde and defending Olympic champion Paolo Bettini to make a move. Valverde later admitted he just didn’t have the legs to follow when Schleck dropped the hammer, opening the door for Sánchez to make his golden move, Bettini later cursed his cautious style of racing.
“It’s great for Rebellin to get silver, but I was too careful in watching Valverde,” he said. “My instinct told me to go with Schleck, but I held back and now I have nothing.”
With the heat, humidity and distance taking a toll, everyone was waiting for the big favorites to make a move until Schleck had enough. The winner of the best young rider’s jersey at the 2008 Tour, Schleck darted away on the steepest part of the 12km Badaling climb, a narrow, switchback climb with about 1.5km to go to the summit, with ramps between 8 and 10 percent.
“All the others were just waiting,” Schleck said. “No one had the courage to attack. That was the only chance I had.”
Latching onto Schleck’s wheel were Rebellin and Sánchez, two lieutenants who were second-option riders behind their favored captains on the stacked Spanish and Italian squads. When Schleck attacked near the top of the final lap, everyone was watching Valverde and Bettini. When both hesitated, their lieutenants gladly stepped into the void to take control of the race. The magnetic draw of the gold medal proved too much for Spartacus. With 5km to go, he buried his big burly legs into the pedals, and blew straight past an astonished Levi Leipheimer (USA).
“What Fabian did was incredible,” said Leipheimer, who finished 11th. “I tried to stay on his wheel, but no one could.”
The six were still together when Kolobnev opened up the sprint with 200 meters to go. The early sprint tactic worked to get him the silver medal at the 2007 worlds, but this time he went too early and settled unhappily for fourth.
Sánchez — who has only won one race outside of Spain, the GP of Zurich in 2005 — spun away with gold. Rebellin took yet another second in a career full of close calls, but this time it was Olympic hardware and a silver lining.
Sánchez’s victory came as just reward for Spain, who rode as a unit despite only racing with five riders (compared to nine at the world championships).
“We rode as a team,” Sánchez said. “I knew I was strong after finishing seventh in the Tour. My biggest fear was that the race would be hard to control. The heat, humidity and dehydration made for extreme conditions.”
Cancellara’s spoiler role continued in the men’s time trial. Granted, the two-time defending world TT champion was a heavy favorite, but he erased a six-second gap to CSC teammate Gustav Larsson at the top of Badaling to turn it into a 33-second margin of victory.
But it was Cancellara’s attentive ears at CSC’s team meetings back in February that torpedoed Gustav Larsson’s hopes for gold. CSC riders passed the hat and outlined their goals for the upcoming season. Cancellara stood up and said he wanted to win Flanders and Roubaix on consecutive weekends. By the time Larsson spoke, the unassuming Swede stood up and said he was targeting the Olympic gold medal. Cancellara remembered that and spoiled another one of his teammates Olympic dreams (but at least Larsson hung on to win silver ahead of Levi Leipheimer’s bronze).
“When I heard I was six seconds behind Larsson, I gave everything. I didn’t want to lose today,” Cancellara said. “To be the big favorite and be able to win says a lot.”
It says a lot about the power of gold. Cancellara didn’t have many friends in Beijing on the one-man Swiss team, and he sure didn’t make any new ones after blowing away his teammates to become just the fifth Olympian to win double road medals in one Olympics.
Hoy leads Britain to an unprecedented 7 of 10 track gold medals
By Fred Dreier
The British press hailed Chris Hoy as the Olympian of the Century after the Scotsman became the first Briton in 100 years to win three gold medals at the same Games. Hoy was simply unstoppable in Beijing, dominating the match sprint and keirin events, and then leading his team sprint squad of Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff to victory.
His wins led Great Britain to the most crushing performance by one single nation at an Olympic track event in recent memory. At the super-modern Laoshan velodrome, the centerpiece of Beijing’s sprawling cycling complex, the Brits took seven of the 10 gold medals up for grabs, and added three silvers and two bronze medals along the way.
“It’s unbelievable,” said former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in attendance at Laoshan. “They showed such spirit, determination and enormous skill.”
Unlike the wiry Blair, the 32-year-old Hoy looks more like a NFL lineman than a bike racer. And he isn’t only huge physically — his personality fills the room. When he opens his mouth, people listen.
When Hoy was asked to explain why the general public should believe that Britain’s success at Laoshan came the old-fashioned way, and was not due to a doctor’s needle, the tape recorders clicked on.
“Any sporting achievement in this modern era is questioned. There always seems to be a cloud of doubt over anybody who performs at a high level, which is sad,” Hoy said. “But the fact is that yes, we’ve stepped it up to a whole new level since the worlds [in March in Manchester]. But what is more surprising to me is that the other nations haven’t been able to raise their games.”
Hoy’s observations rang true — Britain somehow found a way to raise its game after decimating the world at the 2008 UCI world championships. The rest of the world’s best track riders, however, did not. Britain opened the meet with its men’s sprint team shaving .8 seconds off of its silver-medal performance at worlds to grab gold over archrival France. The French team of strongmen Arnaud Tournant, Kevin Sireau and Gregory Bauge posted a similar standard to the gold performance in Manchester.
Britain’s improvements stretched across the board. Reigning world and Olympic pursuit champ Bradley Wiggins shaved nearly 1.5 seconds off his worlds winning time to set a new Olympic standard at 4:16.97 and take gold ahead of Hayden Roulston of New Zealand. Manchester runner-up Jenning Huizenga of The Netherlands didn’t even qualify for the round of eight in Beijing.
Also improving was Rebecca Romero, who shaved an entire second off her winning ride at worlds to take gold in Beijing. Romero’s chief rivals, ’06 and ’07 world champ Sarah Hammer of the United States and Katie Mactier of Australia, tanked. Britain’s team pursuit squad found a way to squeeze nearly three seconds out of its world-record worlds time to thrash Denmark, the silver medalists in Manchester and Beijing. Athens gold medalists Australia languished in qualifying after being slowed by the Dutch, who were lapped. But the Aussies floundered in the bronze medal match to finish fourth.
Even Hoy, the 2008 spring world champ, appeared quicker, stronger and more powerful in Beijing. In the 200 meter qualifying time trial, Hoy was nearly half a second faster than he was in Manchester. His rivals — Bourgain, Tournant and The Netherlands’ Theo Bos — clearly rode in his wake.
“Psychologically I just know I have it,” Hoy said. “[Manchester] was a breakthrough for me in the sprint. But in [Beijing] I could tell I was really on top form.”
So how did the Brits bring their respective games up to the highest level?
The evolution dates back to the Barcelona games in 1992 when Chris Boardman’s pursuit win marked the first British cycling gold in 72 years. Britain failed to use Boardman’s success to springboard a track program, and at the Atlanta Games, Britain won nothing.
But by the 2000 games, Britain’s then-track director made the most of his budget of three million pounds, and Jason Queally brought home gold in the kilometer, to add to Britain’s silver and two bronze medals.
Flash forward to 2008. Leading Britain’s track cycling program is Dave Brailsford, who has a budget of nearly five million pounds, which equates to roughly $8 million. The team can pay its riders to train, travel and compete. It can afford world-class training facilities, and the coaches to man them. And much of that money comes from Britain’s lottery.
“We would not be here without lottery funding, there is no doubt about it,” said Brailsford. “We’ve just been able to go out with lots of money and hire the absolute best people in the world in every single discipline.”
That has meant hiring and funding team doctors, trainers, performance analysts and coaches Iain Dyer Jan van Eijden to run the track program. The German van Eijden, himself a three-time world track champion, joined up with team Great Britain this season, and has helped Hoy, the youngster Kenny, who won silver in the sprint, and a number of the team’s junior riders up their tactical senses.
There’s no secret to Britain’s upgrades in men and material. The nation has a firm eye on the 2012 Olympics, which will be held in London. Britain’s Olympian of the Century, Chris Hoy, says he hopes he has the endurance to make it to those games.
“At the end of the day we do the same amount of work as anybody else,” Hoy said. “We’re just maximizing it, because we have this great support team to do it. We’re the envy of the world.”
High Flyin’: Anne-Caroline Chausson wins inaugural Olympic BMX
By Fred Dreier
The heart-stopping crux of Olympic BMX competition happened in the last left-hand turn of the women’s finals. Brit Shanaze Reade, the reigning world champ and heavy favorite for gold, came in side-by-side with Frenchwoman Anne-Caroline Chausson. Gold was on the line, as the rest of the women’s field pedaled many meters behind.
The two women represented BMX’s two schools — the powerful Reade possesses the flat-out speed that no woman can match, earning her a world track championship in the team sprint. But the cagey Chausson, the most accomplished female mountain biker ever, is the hands-down master at bike handling.
Chausson held a several-inches advantage on the Brit, and Reade decided to gamble everything and tried to cut inside the Frenchwoman. But Chausson leaned heavily into the turn, banking it at a much tighter radius than the speeding Reade. The Brit clipped the Frenchwoman’s wheel and crashed. There would be no medal for Great Britain.
The moment encapsulated the edge-of-your-seat intensity and dramatics that BMX — the newest Olympic sport — needed in order to prove it belongs on the world’s biggest stage.
“At the end of the day, these guys and girls showed that they are total athletes. Everybody is going to have a different view of BMX now that the Olympics is said and done,” said Mike Redman, the 20-year veteran announcer of BMX’s biggest races. “BMX is a bike race — a really cool bike race. We’ve all known that for a long time. But I think the world is now going to see that.”
Bicycle Motocross traces its roots back to Southern California in the late 1960s, when groups of kids racing on modified 20-inch Schwinn Stingray bikes caught the eye of legendary filmmaker Bruce Brown. His 1971 motorcycle film On Any Sunday, starring Steve McQueen, featured a scene of youth emulating their favorite motorcycle heroes. The fad spread like wildfire.
By 1977 the underground sport had gained widespread popularity, and the American Bicycle Association was founded as its organizing body. In 1981 the International BMX Federation was founded, holding its first world championships the next year. In 1993 the sport became integrated with cycling’s governing body, the UCI. The sport’s rules and regulations have evolved over its 30- year history, and its current format calls for eight riders to compete on a 350-meter-long course, with the top four riders advancing to the next round.
Prior to the Beijing Games, the biggest day in BMX’s 30-year history came on June 29, 2003 when the International Olympic Committee voted to include BMX. Having seen the success of action sporting events such as the X Games and Dew Tour, the IOC chose BMX as its bridge to a younger crowd.
But with the inclusion of BMX, organizers changed the format, stretching the old schedule of one quarterfinal, one semifinal and one main event into a drawn-out one that includes three quarters, three semis and one main.
They also beefed up the size and difficulty of the courses. The now standard 35-foot high starting ramp, huge jumps and challenging rhythm sections forced riders to up their respective games.
“Now you know that just to make it to the finals is an amazing accomplishment. Guys have really upped their games,” said Robinson. “There were 16 guys out there who could have won today.”
For the world’s best men, the looming Olympic BMX transformed the international circuit — a deep field of riders hit the UCI’s new Supercross World Cup series in hopes of qualifying for the games.
In the lighter women’s field, the inclusion of BMX wooed a number of women back to the sport. Kintner, a former BMX world champ, transitioned to gravity racing in 2002. But with a gold medal on the line, the three-time world four cross champ made the decision to leave the mountain bike scene for a return to the little bike.
“It’s cool, in the last years we’ve seen a lot of women really try to reinvent themselves,” Kintner said. “It’s the Olympics. We have national governing bodies behind us, spending lots of money on us. It’s legit.”
One such rider was Chausson. At 30, she was much older than her rivals. And having retired from competitive mountain biking in 2005 after winning 16 world titles in downhill, dual slalom and four cross, Chausson was searching for a new challenge.
“I was very comfortable in retirement. Racing gives me stress. But my friends told me I could not turn my back on the Olympics,” Chausson said. “Once I made the decision, I stuck by it. I invested myself fully in it for the last two years. The dream of gold drove me.”
Chausson and France’s team spent a lot of time at the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, training and racing on a replica track. She globe-trotted for much of the year, chasing UCI Supercross points. At most of the races, Chausson finished a clear second to Reade.
So when the Frenchwoman crossed the line in first, she put her head in her hands in relief. Her teammate Laetitia le Corguille won the silver, while Kintner, whose speed was hampered by an injured knee, picked her way through the field into the bronze.
At the post-race press conference, Chausson was asked if she would trade her 16 world titles for the gold medal.
“No — everything I’ve done in the past is part of my history and part of mountain biking’s history, too,” Chausson said. “This medal is the icing on the cake. My life wouldn’t stop if I didn’t win it. But I have enjoyed the ride.”
Mountain bike races a triumph for China, Absalon, and Spitz
By Fred Dreier
The 80 cross-country mountain bike racers who qualified for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing came to China toting serious doubts. Just 11 months prior, many of them competed in the aptly titled Good Luck race on the Laoshan Olympic course in Beijing’s western suburbs. Set up as a test event for racers and organizers alike, that race was ruined when a choking shroud of pollution descended on the capital city. Eight of the 45 male racers finished.
Besides the air, racers weren’t too thrilled with the Laoshan course itself. The rolling loop through an urban park packed a serious punch, but with no rocks or obstacles, the route did not boast a technical challenge.
So, when athletes arrived in Beijing for the August 22-23 races, two features about Laoshan stuck out — clear blue skies and a rougher, tougher course.
“I was very surprised to come here and see that there was no pollution — I just saw the blue sky and it was a happy surprise,” said Frenchman Julien Absalon, who successfully defended his gold medal from 2004. “I must congratulate the Chinese organizers who were able to fix the problem.”
Absalon wasn’t alone in his praise. The International Olympic Committee applauded the Chinese for their efforts to remove 1 million cars from the road, shut down more than 100 factories within Beijing and stop all construction in the lead up to the Games.
But whether the clear skies were the result of those actions or the rainstorms that soaked Beijing during the Games, no one could be sure.
The toughening of the Laoshan course, on the other hand, was due to the efforts of the UCI. Peter Vandenabeele, UCI’s director of mountain bike racing, came to Beijing in April with Phil Saxena, a renowned four cross course designer. The two added rock gardens, log drops and a deep rutted descent to the course. Riders praised the alterations.
“There are some really technical, steep descents. They added bigger rocks since last year,” said Bart Brentjens, winner of the first Olympic gold medal in Atlanta 1996. “Now it’s more technical. Now you need to be a bit more skilled on your bike.”
The combination of clear skies, a challenging course battle, and the riders did not disappoint.
A day of rainfall postponed the debut of BMX racing and soaked the Laoshan course, forcing organizers to hold both the men’s and women’s races on Saturday, August 23. The 30-strong women’s field took to the drying course at 10 a.m., spinning six laps on the 4.5km course. Men started at 3 p.m. and completed eight laps.
German Sabine Spitz grabbed the lead early in the women’s race, dropping her companions Marie-Hélène Prémont, Maja Wloszczowka, Marga Fullana and Irina Kalentieva midway through the opening lap. As temperatures rose, the field thinned out as defending champ Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, Prémont and Fullana abandoned. The German, a multiple-time runner-up at the world championships and World Cup, built an impressive gap on the women’s field and powered her way to the victory, 41 seconds up on Wloszczowka.
“It is a feeling of pure joy that I have finally achieved this after seven years of hard work,” said Spitz, the bronze medalist in 2004 in Athens. “I had second places in many world championships, but now winning here is the crowning glory.”
Spitz’s victory marked Germany’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in mountain biking. In recent years cycling’s popularity and image suffered in Germany due to the doping admittances of members of the Telekom/T-Mobile road team.
“As I was standing on the podium I would have loved to have held a sign that says ‘It is possible without doping,’” Spitz said. Absalon utterly dominated the men’s race, attacking a way from Swiss riders Nino Schuter, Christoph Sauser and Florian Vogel on the second of eight laps. The French rider built up a minute advantage as his teammate Jean-Christoph Peraud pulled into second place. Schurter, the U23 world champion, outlasted his countryman Sauser to take bronze.
Many had questioned whether Absalon could defend his gold medal from 2004. The Frenchman, who has dominated the sport since winning in Athens, lost the world championships in June to Sauser.
“It’s always difficult to be able to confirm your status as number one,” Absalon said. “To be the favorite, you must handle a lot of stress. And as an Olympic champion, I have had to manage that for four years. So to put everything together for one day feels good.”
North Americans left the 2008 Olympics in Beijing empty handed. Canada’s Catherine Pendrel lost her battle with Kalentieva for the bronze, crossing the line in fourth. Americans Mary McConneloug and Georgia Gould finished seventh and eighth place, respectively. Geoff Kabush’s 20th place finish was the top result on a dismal day for North American men. Officials pulled Seamus McGrath, Todd Wells and Adam Craig after all three were lapped.
“It’s unfortunate — we have some talented riders,” Kabush said. “It just shows how difficult it is to have everything come together.”