LONDON (VN) — Swiss rider Nino Schurter could not hide his disappointment over missing out on a gold medal in the Olympic cross-country mountain bike race Sunday at Hadleigh Farm.
The 2009 world champion and number-one ranked rider in the world rode a perfect race, in the leading group from start to finish, only to watch Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy surge past on the inside of the penultimate chicane in the final 200 meters to take gold.
It was a shocking letdown for the big pre-race favorite, who has won four of five World Cup events this year and finished second in the only race he did not win. By contrast, Kulhavy, the current world champion, had not won a major race since taking the rainbow jersey in September 2011.
Despondent, Schurter sat on the ground at the finish line, battling emotions that had been mounting for four years, since he took bronze in Beijing when he was just 22. It was after that performance that then-Olympic champion Julien Absalon pegged Schurter as his successor.
Thirty minutes after losing the two-man sprint with Kulhavy, after TV interviews and the podium ceremony, when Schurter’s mentor and coach Thomas Frischknecht consoled him and gave him a hug, the Swiss momentarily broke down in tears.
“It was a great race,” Schurter said. “My strategy was good. I was attacking from the first lap. I was always in the first two positions. Even 200 meters from the finish, I thought it was my day. I thought I would win. Then, in the second-to-last corner Yaroslav just passed me.
“It’s hard to lose so close. It was a big target for me to win this gold medal. It was a perfect race and I have to be happy with silver.”
It was a near-perfect race — Schurter left the door open for Kulhavy to overtake him on the inside of a left-hand turn right before the downhill run into the finish line. Schurter said he knew that might happen, but he decided not to close the door for fear of being penalized for changing his line.
“I left the corner open for him to pass me,” Schurter said. “I wanted to stay fair and hold my line. Now it’s going through my head, wondering if I should have closed that line. But he was stronger, and he was able to pass me.”
Kulhavy agreed that Schurter’s hesitation in blocking him through the turn was the difference between gold and silver.
“I had to try to attack on the top of the course,” Kulhavy said. “I tried on the second hill before the finish, but we were still together. That last chicane was the last moment for an attack, and I was ready for it. It turned out to be the most important moment of the race.”
Frischknecht was philosophical over Schurter’s result.
“It’s kind of sad if you can’t be happy about a silver medal at the Olympics,” he said. “He did a great race and it’s an achievement, but he also lost gold. The Olympics is not just a race you win or lose. It’s a project that comes to an end.
“The day after the Beijing bronze medal, Nino set this London approach in his mind, and was working on it, really hard. I was on his side, and we did everything we could think of to give him the best possible chance. It was a perfect buildup, and the same with the race itself, he had it under control all race long. It looked like he should be the winner.”
Letting Kulhavy pass him on the inside “was a mistake,” Frischknecht continued. “That’s the only thing he did wrong the whole race, but it did cost him the medal. Not trying to be unfair, but if you are in the lead, and someone comes up on the inside, you just go to the left and you close it.
“Nino, he wanted to be too fair, maybe. That little thing cost him the gold medal, I’m sure, and it will be hard for him, if he actually analyzes the whole race — he did everything right, the preparation, everything, and one mistake cost him the gold medal. He had it in his hands to win. It’s a pretty big mistake.”
Schurter said he would regroup, leaving open the possibility of taking out his frustrations at the September 2 world championship in Leogang, Austria, though he added that he had yet to decide on his next goal.
“It was a big goal, for these Olympics. I’ve been looking forward only to this day,” he said. “The world champs are not yet planned. We’ll see what my target is for worlds. It can be a big goal for me now, to beat Yaroslav and to get the (rainbow) stripes.”
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