Three hours after Sabine Spitz had been crowned as women’s Olympic champion, it was the turn of the men. Luckily a few strands of wispy cloudy cover helped deaden the worst of the searing heat, though the humidity was still likely to prove a key factor. As with the women’s event, on paper the medals looked destined for the front row of the grid, a veritable feast of recent World Championship medallists, including four-time rainbow jersey winner and reigning Olympic champ, France’s Julien Absalon. Next to him were the Swiss trio of Christoph Sauser, Florian Vogel and Nino Schurter, plus Sweden’s Fredrik Kessiakoff, Spain’s Jose Antonio Hermida-Ramos and Belgium’s new marathon champion Roel Paulissen. Britain’s Oli Beckingsale was on the second row, with team-mate Liam Killeen a line further back.
No sooner had the starter sent the frenzied horde on its way than the drama began to unfold. A mere 300m from the line — 90 seconds into the race — Killeen was knocked off and in the bushes. He’d bent his bars in the process and had to limp to the pits to get his mechanic to service them. By the time he’d restarted he was well back in last place and Britain’s medal hopes didn’t look good.
Meanwhile the Swiss were leading the single-file express train through the opening singletrack exchanges, with Absalon and Kessiakoff close to heel. Vogel’s split time, just before the highest point on the course, was exactly seven minutes. But it wasn’t for another five minutes when anything vaguely resembling a gap could be spotted, albeit slight. Paulissen concluded the opening lap in 14:23, with a dozen riders still within ten seconds of his rear tyre. Beckingsale was sitting mid-pack, just over 30 seconds down.
The pace was hotting up, however, and by the next split Kessiakoff, Absalon and Schurter had gained advantage over a mini chase group including Sauser, Jean-Christoph Peraud (Fra) and Marco Fontana (Ita). Two descents later Absalon ripped past his supporting cast but couldn’t shake them off — it was a warning signal, he was just testing the water. But he’s not the undisputed world number one for nothing and it wasn’t long before he went again, making a more decisive move and creating space between himself and the five who’d now closed ranks. By the switchback medley, the Frenchman was already two corners ahead. When he crossed the line at the start of lap three, his lead was 18 seconds. Beckingsale was steadily improving in 21st and Killeen had started his now familiar chase-down and passed 21 riders to make it into the top 30.
With just over a quarter of the race gone, the Athens gold holder was developing a substantial gap and in danger of running away with a second consecutive title. Out of the saddle and powering up the unrelenting slopes, he looked in a different league to the others. Halfway into lap three he afforded himself a glance over his shoulder — there was no-one there. His blistering acceleration had devastated them; in half a lap he’d doubled his lead to 38 seconds. For an XC rider Absalon’s no slouch on technical downhills — he’d been training with his brother Remy, a champion in marathon DH events — and this supreme all-round ability was ideal for this short, tricky course. He completed his third lap in 42:21 and was on the outward tarmac before the next rider Peraud could be seen at the top of the rocky arena descent. He was 33 seconds down, with Sauser, Fontana and Schurter 22 seconds slower again. Beckingsale was now up into Oli 16th, Killeen 27th.
Lap four and the the positions held. Absalon could be seen on the big screen slipping off his pedal through one compression, but it would be the only fault in an otherwise flawless ride. The men’s field were riding two more laps than their female counterparts and crossing the line at the end of lap four in 56:41, Absalon was halfway to gold. Could he keep this pace up though? He was effectively racing himself. Peraud too was holding his own and was nearly a minute in front of the two Swiss, Fontana and Germany’s Manuel Fumic. Beckingsale had gained one more place at halfway, with Killeen moving into 21st.
By lap five’s split marker, Absalon had somehow managed to put in another spurt and went 49 seconds clear of his team-mate. Meanwhile the bronze medal battle had grown to include Belgium’s Sven Nys. Limbs glistening with sweat, Absalon’s breathing didn’t seem especially laboured; he was putting on a show, an exhibition match of sorts. With five laps under his belt he looked wholly composed. He had time to go easier if he needed but that clearly wasn’t on the agenda. Fontana and Schurter briefly shook off Sauser, but the current World Champ wasn’t conceding yet. Beckingsale completed five in 13th spot, 4:17 off the leader, and Killeen was closing on him in 15th. This was another remarkable ride in the making for the British national champion — it’ll become known as the ‘Killeen Charge’.
Into the sixth lap and Absalon was averaging 18.5km/h, a staggering feat in these muggy conditions. The track cam could barely keep up and showed him smooth through the woods; his split time advantage had gone out to 1:08 over Peraud and 2:37 to the rest. Killeen was truly motoring too and nudged past his fellow Brit at the top of the course — they were both eyeing a top ten finish. Passing under the arch to complete lap six, a French one-two looked pretty certain. That left five riders in the hunt for bronze. Killeen was up to 11th with two circuits remaining and Beckingsale in 15th.
Imperious would be one way to describe how Absalon was looking, truly a class apart. He still had a minute over Peraud by the 7th split. Having separated themselves from the rest of the group, the bronze was there for one of Sauser, Schurter and Fumic to bag; it was shaping up for a textbook sprint finish. Taking the bell in 1:40:48, Absalon clocked his position on the scoreboard and steeled himself for an error-free run-in. Peraud was safe in silver, but the bronze match was now a two-horse race between the Swiss. Killeen had gained another place to take the bell in 10th, with Beckingsale a short distance behind in 11th; they’re becoming a formidable double-act on the big stage.
Unsurprisingly, Absalon showed no signs of flagging on the home run. His travelling army of fans were already singing. Only Paula Pezzo had won back-to-back golds in the women’s races in Atlanta and Sydney, so the Frenchman would be laying down a new marker. He eventually finished in 1:55:59, a remarkable time in the circumstances, and like Spitz before him crossed the line before executing the bike-raised champion’s salute. Peraud came in little over a minute later and it fell to Schurter to see off Sauser in the closing dash. Impressively Killeen would finish 7th and would be left thinking of what might have been, while Beckingsale contented himself with 12th.
It had been another superlative encounter, one the huge gallery of spectators deserved. As Beckingsale would later comment, the man who won here would have rightfully earnt the title of the world’s best mountain biker — that man was Absalon. Beijing had certainly never seen anything like it. To be fair, the world hadn’t either. Absalon’s only 28 and by London 2012 will be in what’s considered a rider’s prime. A trip down Ladbrooke’s for a long-range punt probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Gold — Julien Absalon (Fra)
Silver — Jean-Christoph Peraud (Fra)
Bronze — Nino Schurter (Sui)