Road race commentator Phil Liggett blundered into a storm of controversy at the beginning of the Olympics when he said mountain biking (and BMX) should not be part of the Games.
But after yesterday’s nail-biting men’s cross-country race there’s surely no question that mountain biking deserves its place in the Games.
Jaroslav Kulhavy demonstrated an astonishing combination of riding skill and sheer power; Nino Schurter showed how to control a race and Burry Stander and Jose Hermida seemed never to give up even when it was obvious they were racing for fourth.
And you have to feel for poor Marco Fontana, robbed of a place in a three-man dash for the line by last-second mechanicals.
Kulhavy, who won both the World Cup series and the world championship in 2011, put his success down to strength and timing.
“I am really happy, because last year was amazing, but I did everything for this race,” he said. “I had to try to attack on the top of the course. 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.”
Runner-up Nino Schurter consoled himself that he had simply been beaten by a stronger rider despite not putting a tyre wrong all race.
“It was a great race, my strategy quite good, I was attacking from the first lap, always riding in the first two positions,” said Schurter. “At 200 metres before the finish line, I almost thought I can win this race. At the second last corner Kulhavy just passed me and it’s hard to close the race at that point.
“It was the perfect race, I have to be happy now with silver, Kulhavy was super-strong, he deserved it. The whole race has gone through my head and I analysed a lot of what was wrong and right, my goal was to run the perfect race and I would say it’s one of my best performances and I just got beaten by a strong rider. I would say it was a big fight, a big show for our sport and now I have to be happy about my silver.”
Disaster for Fontana
Marco Fontana said he’d been forced to ride cautiously in the last kilometres to preserve his bronze position after disaster struck.
“When I broke the whole seat in the last Rock Garden, I risked losing the medal, but I stayed calm.
“I slowed down as I felt the rim touching the ground. I was afraid of a flat tyre.
“It’s really hard climbing the switchbacks without a saddle because you don’t have balance.
Fontana had deliberately allowed Schurter and Kulhavy to set the pace. “I planned everything with my coach and my psychologist,” said Fontana. “I knew I couldn’t lose energy. I didn’t do turns as I knew Nino and Jaroslav had to lead the race. They wasted a lot of energy and perhaps in the final part, I had something more.”
Thanks to that mechanical, it was not to be, but Fontana was gracious in defeat.
“I fought for third place and I am satisfied with the bronze medal. The two guys ahead of me went really fast and for all season. They were better than me, so credit to them.”
Hermida & Stander: the battlers
Fourth-placed Jose Hermida also had problems with mechanicals – and not just his own.
“I felt good and I could make it up to the front group, Hermida said. “Still, [Julien] Absalon had a problem on a rocky climb and that made me lose important time. I gave it all to try to contact the three leaders and with [Burry] Stander, we closed that gap.”
But as he tried to shed Stander, Hermida had his own problem.
“My chain fell off just when I was opening a gap on Stander and the leading group was reduced to four. I knew Burry would pay the effort of the first two laps.
“On that last lap, I could not slow down. I had to keep the fourth spot and give it all in case any of the three in front would have suffered a mishap. The medal I was coming for was still possible. Finally this did not happen, but I’m happy because I’ve given everything I had. The level of the front riders was very similar and details made the differences.”
South African Burry Stander animated the race with constant attempts to pass the leaders after battling his way up from 19th place.
Stander said: “Fifth, being 10 seconds off the podium you can’t be disappointed with that.
“Obviously you’re here for a medal, but I gave it my all. I prepared as much as I could and put absolutely everything I could into this year. It was just 10 seconds too slow, I guess.
“With two laps to go on that steep climb the guys absolutely smashed it. I was on my max and there’s nothing you can do.
“It’s a very fair sport, you give what you’ve got, and if you don’t have it you don’t have it, and the top three guys deserved it today.”
Defending champion Julien Absalon punctured early in the race and pulled out after losing a minute changing a wheel.
“I lost motivation. It was not worth it because any chance of a medal was gone,” Absalon said. “I did not want to ride fast laps because I would have compared my times with the others’ and I was afraid I would be even more disappointed.”
“Four years of hard work and to suffer that – I could have accepted to have a bad day, to be beaten. I was ready for that,” Absalon said. “Not be able to defend your chances because of a mechanical, it’s hard to take. Four years of hard work for nothing.
“After being an Olympic champion, there was no point of fighting for a 10th-place finish.”
For the dejected Absalon, it might be the end of his Olympic career. “I cannot say that for sure, because I am disappointed,” Absalon said, when asked ifhis Olympic career was over. “But I think so, yes.”
Canada’s ever-ebullient Geoff Kabush was happy with eighth place.
“I just wasn’t able to get in that lead group,” he said. “But I was close, maybe just lacking the little bit of snap to get up there with the leaders.
“I’m finishing with a smile on my face. Coming to the Olympics you always dream big. I definitely came here with the goal of a medal, but top eight is a great result. ‘ll take some satisfaction out of that and just continue to enjoy riding my bike.”
Britain’s Liam Killeen crashed on Deane’s drop and broke his ankle. We’ve asked the GB cycling team for an update on his condition and will bring it to you as soon as we hear.