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News Feature, August 22, 2008
Olympic mountain bikers to take on tougher course
By Sue George, with additional reporting by Rob Jones
After last fall's mountain bike Test Event in Beijing, China, many riders lamented that the Olympic course was not technically challenging enough and asked for changes. Then they arrived earlier this month to find a very different and much more technical course than they were expecting.
The roughly 4.5 kilometre circuit has undergone drastic revisions since it was charitably described as a road course. Now, it is very technical, with an added switchback climb and rock-strewn descents. The riders have been praising the alterations.
"The course has changed a lot since the test event," said Spain's Jose Antonio Hermida, who won silver in Athens in 2004. "We were complaining last year that it wasn't hard enough, now we find ourselves in a situation where it might almost be too hard!"
"The first part is all up-down, up-down. Then there is a long climb after the feedzone with a very fast downhill right after. It's a beautiful course, a hard course, and now it is a course worthy of the Olympics," said Hermida.
"It is the most difficult course of the year," said U23 World Champion Nino Schurter, a member of the powerful Swiss team.
"It's pretty brutal," agreed Canada's Seamus McGrath, who finished ninth in Athens. "The heat back in the woods is like an oven, and I expect a lot of riders will get into trouble by going out too fast."
His team-mate Catharine Pendrel, winner of the Bromont World Cup, said, "The start is still the same; however, the descent afterwards is much more challenging than before. They added big rocks, steep climbs and a long switchback climb." She forecasted a "race of attrition" due to the course's difficulty.
"The climbs are steep, so it will suit someone with a high power to weight ratio, like Marga [Fullana] at the Worlds," predicted Pendrel. Reigning women's World Champion Fullana, from Spain, is a one of the favourites going into the women's race on Saturday morning.
Her stiffest challenges are likely to come from German Sabine Spitz, Russian former World Champion Irina Kalentieva, Athens Olympic winner Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa, Canadian Marie-Helene Premont, who won the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup in late July, and Chinese women Ying Liu and Chengyuan Ren, who have lived by and trained on the course for years. Americans Georgia Gould and Mary McConneloug and Norwegian Lene Byberg will also be among those with a shot at the podium.
"It's a nice course, but harder than I thought it would be. It is quite technical, with good descents," said Premont, who got in plenty of technical racing practice at the last two World Cups in Canada.
On the men's side, defending Olympic champion Julien Absalon of France and current World Champion Christoph Sauser of Switzerland are the favourites going into the their race.
However, one can't count out Hermida, South Africa's Burry Stander, Americans Todd Wells and Adam Craig, Canadians Geoff Kabush and Seamus McGrath, Swede Fredrik Kessiakoff, Austrian Christoph Soukup, Dane Jakob Fuglsang, Dutchman Bart Brentjens, who won bronze in 2004, marathon World Champion Roel Paulissen, and the entire Swiss Team which in addition to Sauser, includes Schurter and Florian Vogel.
McGrath agreed with Premont's prediction that the race will be one of attrition. "It's a good course, one of the more demanding ones I have ever seen. It's the Olympics, hot and humid, technical, no rest, fast descents, hard corners and steep climbs ... a brutal course, relentless, and requires pure fitness For sure I can see people going out really hard and exploding. It's a race where you've got to be able to push in the end, that's when the whole race is going to go down."
Kabush was excited about the course becoming more technical and thought it was better suited to him. "It's a course that I can take advantage of with skills and equipment selection."
While the general consensus is that the course is still a hardtail course because the weight will be a factor with all the climbing, one man will surely ride a full suspension: Christoph Sauser, who debuted his brand new Specialized Epic bike at the World Championships for a win, and told Cyclingnews in an interview, "I don't know what a hardtail is any more. For eight years I've been on softtail only I'm completely convinced of the advantage of a full suspension bike."
Sauser's form is somewhat in question after suffered a knee injury just before the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup in late July, but he seems to be recovered.
"It's much better now," said Sauser of his knee. "Three weeks ago, I was walking out of a doctor's office with my big cast off and some antibiotics. I can still feel it, but now I can bend it fully."
At the same time, Absalon, who did not finish a disappointing World Championship race, handily won the last two World Cups in July and August.
Following a postponement due to wet weather and course conditions, the 30 women's racers will compete Saturday morning before the 50 men take off as originally scheduled on Saturday afternoon.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for complete live and post-race coverage. In the meantime, study the start lists.