Written by: Fred Dreier
Germany’s Sabine Spitz owns a closet full of silver and bronze medals from mountain bike racing’s biggest events — the Olympics, world championships and World Cup. The 36-year-old patiently rode in the shadows of ’04 Olympic champ Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå during the four years in which the Norwegian ruled over the sport.
But on a scorching day in Beijing, that saw Dahle Flesjå and reigning world champ Marga Fullana abandon, Spitz leapt out of the shadow in commanding fashion. The German rode off the front the women’s cross-country mountain bike race to take the biggest victory of her career. Spitz led virtually wire-to-wire over the six-lap race, crossing the line with a 41-second advantage over Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska.
Russia’s wiry Irina Kalentieva won a tight battle with Canadian Catherine Pendrel to grab the bronze, 1:17 in arrears.
“The target [was] to shock the opponent in the race, but to happen in this way is a big surprise,” Spitz said. “It is a feeling of pure joy that I have finally achieved this after seven years of hard work. I had second places in many world championships, but now winning here is the crowning glory.”
Riders took to the track two days after a full day of rain soaked greater Beijing, delaying the Olympic BMX competition by one day, and pushing the women’s mountain-bike race back a day as well. After a day of intense sunshine, the Laoshan course — located adjacent to the velodrome and BMX track — sported a dry, tacky dirt surface.
Riders awoke on Saturday morning to see abnormally clear skies over greater Beijing — a relief to many who feared the city’s infamous pollution might affect the race.
But while the skies were clear, the air was thick with humidity. The sunshine heated temperatures into the high 80’s and low 90’s by the race’s 10 a.m. starting time.
“Man it was hot — it’s the type of race where if you don’t’ watch it, you can really blow up,” said American Mary McConneloug. “It becomes a test of patience — the race goes in slow motion it’s so hot.”
The other X-factor riders faced came in the form of course alterations done by the UCI. Riders complained that the Laoshan course lacked sufficient technical challenge after the course hosted the Goodluck Beijing test event in September of 2007. The UCI’s mountain bike chief Peter Vandenabeele traveled to Beijing in May with famed four-cross course designer Phil Saxena to spice up the track. The two added rock gardens, log drops and a descent down a ditch.
The tricky sections sent many women tumbling to the ground.
“When I did my first [pre-race] lap, I said ‘is this the same course as last year?'” Spitz said. “It was a real challenge to ride the downhills. But after I thought it could be a big advantage for me because other riders like Gunn Rita or [world champion] Marga [Fullana] aren’t very strong in the technical parts.”
American Georgia Gould led the 30-strong field out of the starting gate and up the opening climb. After China’s Ying Liu, winner of the 2007 test event, crashed with Rosara Joseph, a front pack containing Spitz, Fullana, Kalentieva, Wloszczowska, Pendrel and Marie-Héléne Prémont established itself.
Prémont, the current World Cup champ, pushed the pace early, drawing out Spitz, Wloszczowska and Fullana. But the Canadian paid for her effort and abandoned on the second lap complaining of breathing problems.
Spitz earned her gap three quarters of the way through the opening lap, speeding down a descent to grab 25 seconds on Wloszczowska and Fullana.
“This put pressure on the others. I was very pleased about this — I heard some shouts behind me,” Spitz said. “I was able to stay relaxed after that.”
Spitz stretched her advantage out to a minute, which held for much of the race. Behind the German the battle for silver ensued between Wloszczowska, Kalentieva, Pendrel and Liu, who rode her way back into contention. Wloszczowska distanced herself from the chasers at the midway point, and Liu eventually paid for her surge and faded to 12th, setting the battle between Kalentieva and Pendrel for bronze.
Pendrel is the revelation of the 2008 World Cup season, taking one victory and a second in her first full campaign. The Canadian rode four seconds ahead of Kalentieva, the 2007 world champ, until the final lap, when Kalentieva’s experience paid off.
“I couldn’t shake her. I’d open it and she’d come back,” Pendrel said. “There was one more popper climb before the last descent and I tried to shift down and [the chain] got caught and I had to put my foot down. That was third.”
Behind the battle for third, a host of fast starters wilted in the heat. Dahle Flesjå abandoned at the race’s midpoint after crashing and damaging her brakes. Fullana also bid the race farewell. Joseph, the Oceana champion, suffered a nasty endo on the descent, but emerged unscathed.
Americans Gould and McConneloug slowly worked their way up from the mid teens into the top-ten. On the penultimate lap McConneloug rode in 9th place, her finishing spot from 2004 in Athens. Gould spun her wheels behind Liu in 12th. But both made final-lap charges to finish in 7th and 8th place, respectively.
“It wasn’t what I was hoping and dreaming for — but it’s a solid result,” Gould said. “I had a strategy to be conservative at the beginning, because I knew people would be blowing up at the end. If you’re tired, you can’t make it up those climbs.”
Even Spitz showed signs of wear on the final lap. The German ceeded 20 seconds to Wloszczowska, and made a rare bobble at the top of the penultimate descent, nearly crashing. Instead of risking a fall, Spitz dismounted her bike and carried it down.
Spitz’ victory marks Germany’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in mountain biking. Spitz finished third in Athens in 2004, which led to a major boost in the sport’s popularity amongst the Germans. 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. To address her sport’s image, Spitz made a firm declaration of her attitude toward doping.
“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.