LONDON, England (VN) — American Georgia Gould is on a very short list of women taking the start at Saturday’s Olympic cross-country mountain bike race with a very good shot at wearing a medal two hours later.
The 32-year-old U.S. national champion, who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been hovering at the top end of international mountain biking for several years. And though she has never won a World Cup event, Gould is a four-star favorite behind her Luna teammate, Canadian Catherine Pendrel, the current world champion.
Six weeks ago Gould came close to beating Pendrel at the World Cup in Windham, New York, jumping out to take an early lead that she held for all but the final kilometer. Just as race announcers claimed she had the win in the bag, Gould suffered an untimely puncture that left her struggling to finish the final lap, with Pendrel and teammate Katerina Nash, of the Czech Republic, passing her in the final 25 meters.
Lea Davison, the other U.S. woman racing in London Saturday, also had a strong showing in Windham, placing fifth to equal her best-ever World Cup result.
American men also had a strong showing at that race, with three-time Olympian Todd Wells finishing fourth, his career-best World Cup result, and 27-year-old Sam Schultz finishing 10th.
One week earlier, Gould finished second at the World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, just 23 seconds behind Pendrel. Davison finished seventh in Mont-Sainte-Anne, 3:52 off the winning pace.
Gould, who placed eighth in Beijing, has intimate familiarly with the 4.8km circuit at Hadleigh Farm, 40 miles east of London, having raced the London Prepares test event last year, won by Pendrel.
The final distance of the men’s and women’s races were determined Friday afternoon — designed so the men and women finish in a maximum time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.
“I definitely benefit from the more time that I spend on a course, so I tried to take advantage of every opportunity that’s been available to be out here on the course,” Gould said on Thursday. “I was at the training days last year, the training days this year and also the test event last year. You can ride a hot lap on the course, but it’s different when you’re racing it. I think just having that experience racing this course for me is good, even though they’ve changed the course a little bit since then. Just knowing how that race played out and knowing that it might be a little bit more of a tactical race — rather than each person against the course like some of the World Cups can be. I’m definitely glad that I had that experience.”
Course experience will be key on a mostly artificial circuit that includes gravel and technical sections like “The Rock Garden”, “Dean’s Drop”, “Snake Hill” and the “Rabbit Hole”.
“I love the course, said Davison. “Surprisingly, it’s very challenging. The climbs just keep coming. There’s not a lot of recovery, which I expected. There’s technical sections thrown in there so whenever you get recovery, you’re not really recovering because you have to be on it for those technical sections. It’s a really challenging course and I think it’s going to weed out a deserving victor.”
Both American women, along with the rest of the field, know that Pendrel is the red-hot favorite. She has won three World Cup competitions in 2012, beating all of her Olympic challengers, and is currently ranked number one in the world.
Another Luna rider to watch is Nash. Like Gould, she has yet to win a World Cup, though she’s twice been runner-up in 2012.
The biggest wildcard in the women’s race is Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, the 2008 Olympic champion and four-time world cross-country champion who left the sport to have a child, but has returned with a vengeance. On May 12 Dahle Flesjå won the World Cup in La Bresse, France; on June 10 she won the European championship, and on July 28 she won the Val d’Isère World Cup ahead of France’s Julie Bresset and Great Britain’s Annie Last, with Canada’s Emily Batty fourth, and Gould fifth. Dahle Flesjå is currently ranked second in the world behind Pendrel.
Another threat to a North American gold medal is Bresset, who in 2011 became the youngest World Cup series champion in history. The 23-year-old from France told Agence France Press she believes she is “capable” of medaling on Saturday but believes Pendrel is the big favorite.
“She’s had three wins in the World Cup and she’s the leader in the general ranking,” said Bresset. “Then we are five or six — Gunn-Rita, who won the last World Cup and is really in form. There’s also Annie Last, who races at home and really knows the course well.”
Last is the first British woman to qualify for the Olympic mountain bike race since Athens in 2004. She took third place at the final World Cup round in 2012, and recorded several top-10 finishes in 2011 and 2012 World Cup events. With a partisan crowd behind her, Last will be looking to record a career-best result.
Missing from the women’s race is Polish rider Maja Wloszczokska, the 2010 world champion and 2011 worlds sliver medalist, due to foot injuries sustained in a recent training crash.
Three favorites for men’s race
Twenty-five hours after the start of the women’s race, the top cross-country men from around the globe will line up for one of the final events of these London Olympics.
Three riders are at the top of everyone’s list of pre-race favorites — Frenchman Julien Absalon, Nino Schurter of Switzerland, and Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy.
Absalon is the most decorated male cross-country racer of all time, having won gold medals in 2004 and 2008, and worn the rainbow jersey of world champion four consecutive years from 2004 through 2007.
“In Athens I was very young and it was the start of my dominance in the discipline,” said Absalon, who is still shaking off the effects of a crash two weeks ago. “In Beijing I was the big favorite and had a lot of stress and expectation. I’ve come here more relaxed, I’ve got more experience. I’m the only one to have already won two gold medals and this takes some pressure off of me. A medal here would be just a bonus.”
Absalon, 31, has pointed to Schurter, the 2009 world champion, as the top favorite. Schurter, who is currently ranked number one in the World Cup rankings, earned a bronze medal in Beijing when he was just 22. The Swiss rider has won four of five World Cup events this year, and finished second in the only race he did not win. His last win, at Val d’Isère on July 28, came 13 seconds ahead of compatriot Lukas Flückiger, with Italian Marco Aurelio Fontana in third.
Kulhavy is the current world champion, but has not won a major race since taking the rainbow jersey in September 2011. He is still ranked second in the world rankings, based primarily off his results from last season.
Meanwhile, Wells comes to London as an outsider for the podium. His season started off poorly with a bad crash prior to the start of the first World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but he’s come into form just in time for the London Games. The American is currently ranked 23rd in the world.
“Most of these riders, we all race together all the time,” Wells said. “There are fewer riders here at the Olympics because each country can only qualify one to three riders, so it’s a smaller field. I think it’s going to be a pretty typical World Cup sort of race and the best guys come to the front in those races. This course is very firm and fast, so it’s small differences between the riders. If it’s muddy and slow and the average speed is eight miles per hour, one guy who is stronger by the end of the race gains a big-time gap. Here it’s fast, so even if you’re not good or you’re off a little bit, you can still maintain a lot of speed and momentum. I think there will be small gaps between the riders.”
As for Schultz, the first-time Olympian is hoping to put in the best ride of his career — a top-10 finish would be a success for the rider from Missoula, Montana.
“It’s good to have the veterans on the squad to give us the scoop and fill us in on some of the questions we have,” Schultz said of his Olympic experience. “They’ve been through it all and know what’s happening. It’s cool because Lea (Davison) and I are completely wide-eyed and blown away. It actually makes more of a good mix. Lea and I are super pumped and then we have the veterans that keep it a little bit more grounded and know the ropes.”
The big wildcard in the men’s race is Jose Antonio Hermida. The Spaniard took silver in Athens in 2004 but has not won a major race since taking the world championship in 2010. His best World Cup result this season was second at Mont-Sainte-Anne, and he is currently ranked eighth in the World Cup standings.
The women will compete for Olympic glory on Saturday, August 11, at 12:30 p.m. The men’s race is slated for Sunday, August 12, at 1:30 p.m.