Last but not least — on the last full day of competition at the Beijing Olympics — it was time for the mountain bike racing. While most sports have already been decided and the athletes long since started partying, the world’s finest mtb’ers finally hit the dirt on the dusty Laoshan course, tucked away behind the state-of-the-art velodrome.
Delayed by a day thanks to the postponement of the BMX event, it was the women who’d kick things off at 10am local time; the men would follow at 3pm. Two hours before we’d hear the starter’s gun, the thermometer had already sailed past the 30-degree mark and there wasn’t a hint of cloud in the pristine skies above. Also lacking was the dreaded pollution; storms had cleared the air and this was acknowledged as the crispest day of the Games so far. Thankfully a waft of breeze, so lacking in the last fortnight, took the edge off the blistering heat. Bearing in mind what might have been, the racers could have little to complain about in the conditions.
Perhaps most heartening of all was the crowd. With its late position on the programme it could easily have been a damp squib, but the locals, starved of entry on a grand scale to anything but the Bird’s Nest and then mostly corporates, had lapped it up. The weather undoubtedly helped — after all the cycling road race and walking marathons across the streets of the Chinese capital had played out under a thunderstorm. Nevertheless, according to Peter van den Abeele, the UCI mountain bike director, 15,000 tickets had been sold for the day, making it far busier than most World Cups other than Fort William. Five deep in the arena, up the first climb and in designated spectator zones, it ignited memories of old Grundigs.
If the race went with the form book, the medals seemed destined to go the big hitters on the front row of the grid: Marie-Helene Premont (Can), Sabine Spitz (Ger), Irina Kalentieva (Rus) and Marga Fullana (Esp). Only reigning champ Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Nor), or possibly one of the two Chinese girls — Ying Liu or Chengyuan Ren — looked likely to threaten the podium.
With the crowd chanting loudly for their homegrown heroes, we were off. And almost immediately, twenty metres from the arch, there was a pile-up involving Liu, Campos (Chi) and Joseph (NZ). Premont was unaffected and hit the first climb ahead. Ominously for the rest of the field, the big three of Premont, Fullana and Spitz were showing signs of breaking away by the end of the initial open section, with Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska leading a chasing four just behind. The group stayed the same until a steep, loose and rocky chute some three-quarters of the way round the circuit. Perhaps the single biggest technical challenge on the course, it had even the top riders hesitating. Premont looked uncharacteristically nervy, a couple were off and running, which left the door open for Spitz to clear the plunge with aplomb and make immediate headway. So many riders fumbled through here it was like they’d never ridden it in practice; whatever their excuse, it would prove costly. The bronze medallist from Athens consolidated her break to close the lap out in 16:51, with Fullana, Kalentieva and Wloszczowska 22 seconds down.
Halfway through lap two, Spitz had increased her lead to 36 secondss over the young Pole, but the pecking order had changed. She was joined by Catherine Pendrel (Can) and Liu, with Kalentieva just off their tail. Fullana had been dropped and Premont was nowhere. It would transpire that the Canadian World Cup leader and Athens silver medallist abandoned the race a short distance form the arena. At the head of the field, the stocky German stuttered briefly at the top of the long switchback climbs but she’d worked hard to put more ground between her and the pack. She completed a second successive sub-17 minute lap with a 49 second margin over Wloszczowska , Pendrel, Yiu and Kalentieva. Fullana, almost two minutes back in 11th was out of contention and would be the next to DNF.
The running order stayed pretty much the same through the third lap, with Spitz squeezing out a few more seconds over her chasers. The next time they went under the banner marked the halfway mark on the race and it was looking increasingly likely that the medals would be shared by this leading five.
Spitz clearly had the bit between her teeth and, gripping the bar-ends with a determination to add another major title to her 2003 rainbow jersey, she was gobbling up the hard-packed ascents. Through the tree-lined singletrack she was smoothest and fastest and with an hour elapsed at the split timer, her lead over Wloszczowska was 51 seconds; Pendrel and the other pair were in danger of being permanently dropped a further 40 seconds further back. The toughest climbs were now a granny ring slog, but while the German appeared to be crawling, her rivals were going backwards. Spitz was over the line in 1:08:46 and had topped out on the first doubletrack climb by the time Wloszczowska crossed the line just over a minute later, followed by 40 sends later by the Canadian and Russian. China’s Liu had slipped to 6th and was passed on the outgoing tramac stretch by compatriot Chengyuan Ren who moved into 5th.
On the long drag up to the trig pillar and high point of the course, Spitz still looked strong, she was clearly well acclimatised. The chasers were making little impact and only Ren appeared to be closing. At the bell for the last lap, Spitz had a 55 second advantage and needed to just keep ticking over. Wloszczowska looked safe for silver, holding a minute over Prendel and Kalentieva — the battle was on for bronze.
Half a lap from home, Spitz still looked comfortable; the sweat running from her brow was the taste of victory. With the excpetion of Wloszczowska, the rest were looking very tired, barely hanging onto the bars through the bumps and log-steps. Spitz was able to cruise the climbs and barring a disaster the gold was hers.
By the time she hit the switchback maze, Spitz could afford to take her foot off the gas. Surprisingly for such a wily campaigner, however, she also took her eye off the penultimate rock drop, catching a pedal and sprawling sideways. It visibly jolted her, serving a reminder that in mountain biking it’s never over til it’s over. But by the time she was visible to the arena crowd, her calm restored, the victory march proper had begun. She collected a flag from the gallery and waved it jubilantly down the finish straight, stopping just short of the line to pick up her bike and raise it heavenward in a classic salute. Her name was now in the record books.
Behind her Wloszczowska had secured silver, leaving only the bronze to be decided. Knowing the top two places were out of reach, Kalentieva had played a canny waiting game and left it until the last significant pull to make her move. In the end she’d put nine seconds into Pendrel to collect her first Olympic medal.
Spitz had finished in 1:45:11, not a significant amount of time for an elite level race, but for such a short course it had seen off many of the sport’s big names.
Defending champion Dahle Flesjaa, no mean bike handler on her day, was among the casualties. She said: “I did a ‘salto’ on one of the downhills and damaged my rear brake. It would have been too risky to continue.” We can only presume ‘salto’ is a Norwegian version of an ‘endo’ or we’d be worrying that the heat had really got to her.
Gold — Sabine Spitz (Ger) 1:45:11
Silver — Maja Wloszczowska (Pol) 1:45:52
Bronze — Irina Kalentieva (Rus) 1:46:28