Even before the Athens Olympics began, the MTB race started shedding competitors – hot favourite Filip Meirhaeghe quit racing under an EPO cloud, leaving the men’s field wide open. Come the racing itself and the hot, dusty and loose Parnitha course proved a real challenge to the field.
The men’s race might have lost its clear favourite, but there was no question of who was in pole position for the women’s medal. Gunn-Rita Dahle’s won everything she’s touched for the last two seasons and no-one realistically expected anyone else to win it. With the challenge from defending Olympic champion Paola Pezzo evaporating (she quit with back pain early in the race) it was the Canadian duo of Alison Sydor and Marie-Helene Premont making the early running. But it wasn’t long before Dahle had taken the lead. She put over a minute into the chasing riders but it nearly all came apart when she crashed, bending her rear derailleur. The damage to her bike meant a nightmare of inaccessible and slipping gears and numerous dismounts, and the scorching heat caused her pace to drop over the closing stages. But somehow she held on to the end, finishing 59 seconds ahead of Premont to take the gold medal. Germany’s Sabine Spitz had overhauled Sydor to take bronze.
It all went wrong for a number of riders in the men’s race very early on, with a bottleneck at the end of the start loop leading to congestion, crashes and a bunch of top names – Christoph Sauser, Ryder Hesjedal, Thomas Frishcknecht, Liam Killeen – finding themselves well down the order with a lot of work to do. Sauser later dropped out with a broken chain and Hesjedal fell victim to a recalcitrant tubeless tyre. Meanwhile, Julien Absalon was setting a ferocious pace at the front, crushing any remaining opposition on the fifth lap and leaving Jose Antonio Hermida and 1996 gold medallist Bart Brentjens to fight it out for silver. Hermida dropped Brentjens on the final lap, finishing a minute down on Absalon.
And the Brits? It’s a “what could have been” story for Killeen – he worked his way back through the field to finish in a strong fifth place, 3:30 down on the winner. Had he not got himself stuck in the mess near the start there might have been a medal. But it was a powerful performance and he’s a lot younger than most of the riders in the field – come the 2008 Games in Beijing he’ll be in with a very good chance indeed. Oli Beckingsale put in a good ride too, finishing 18th.