Mountain biking is a relatively young Olympic sport. First included in 1996 in Atlanta, it has also been part of the 2000 Games in Sydney, the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2008 Games in Beijing. Although the ever-evolving sport encompasses a variety of disciplines, only cross country racing is part of the Olympic mountain bike experience. Those who favor marathon, short track or gravity racing are out of luck.
Many of the world's fastest cross country racers will line up at Hadleigh Park in Essex County near London for the 2012 Olympic cross country race. The women will race on Saturday, August 11 at 12:30 pm local time while the men will take to the off-road track on Sunday, August 12 at 1:30 pm.
The Olympic cross country race is multi-lap type of cross country event run in a format similar to a World Cup cross country. In 2012 in London, racers can expect a duration of about 1.5 hours of high intensity suffering from start to finish.
A mass start event means grid position is important, but because there are many fewer competitors in an Olympic mountain bike race than in a typical World Cup, the starts are not nearly as chaotic. Fifty male and 30 female racers are expected at the Olympic Games per defined quotas. In contrast, the elite men's field at a popular World Cup can top 200 riders.
The Olympic circuit is located in the town of Hadleigh, approximately one hour east of London, overlooking the Thames River Estuary. It is wide open, rolling terrain, and the course is completely man-made.
Organizers have built a roughly five-kilometre loop that sends the riders up and down the rolling hills multiple times, and they have constructed a number of rock garden sections dotted through the circuit. Most of the surface is crushed gravel, with a few grass and hard packed dirt sections. It should hold up well in both wet and dry conditions. It will be very spectator and TV-friendly, with large sections viewable from a single vantage point.
The course got a dry run during an official Test Event on July 31, 2011. Catharine Pendrel (Canada) won the women's race in 1:32:04, ahead of Georgia Gould (United States Of America) and Julie Bresset (France).
"You appreciate the hardness of the climbs in race conditions," said Pendrel after winning. "I think it races well; it's a hard course, a fast course, I think it's anyone's course."
In the men's test event, Julien Absalon (France) won in 1:31:48, ahead of Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) and Karl Markt (Austria).
"I'm also happy with the track. Finally it's good to ride, it is a fun track and it's interesting," said Absalon.
The qualification process for earning a spot to compete at the Olympic Games is quite complicated and top racers spend years working toward the goal of just making their national team, let alone actually winning a medal.
It is UCI which determines the allocation of Olympic Games spots. Most of them are decided based on its rankings of nations worldwide, but a few spots are reserved for highly ranked nations in one of four regions organized by continents.
Because of the limited number of Olympic spots and the large number of countries which participate, not every country gets to send a representative.
The first criterion is international rankings, as determined by the UCI.
For the men, the top five ranked nations send three athletes each while nations ranked sixth through 13th send two athletes each. Nations number 14 through 24 get one rider each.
For the women, the top eight ranked nations get to send two riders each while those ranked ninth through 18th send one each.
There is a second way athletes can get to the Olympics. If a nation does not already qualify athletes via the aforementioned international rankings system, it can send one male athlete each if it is in the top two ranked nations in the continental regions of Africa, American, Asia or Oceania. Or it can send one female rider each if ranked first in any of those same areas.
Any nation that qualifies under the first criterion will not count in the second criterion, and in that case the next best nation gets the spot.
UCI "Olympic Qualification Rankings" are a combination of UCI rankings by nation from two periods: May 23, 2010 to May 22, 2011 and May 23, 2011 to May 22, 2012. They are calculated by summing points of the three best placed riders from each nation in the UCI individual ranking for Olympic format events. Nations with only one or two riders will also be included in the UCI ranking by nations. In case of a tie, the ranking of each nation's best rider determines the top ranked nation.
On May 23, 2012, the UCI will establish the UCI Olympic Qualification Ranking, and by June 1, it will have confirmed the number of qualifying spots for each nation. Countries have until June 15, 2012 to confirm they will use all earned spots and if there are any unused spots, they will get re-allocated on June 29, 2012. Entries are due to the London 2012 Organising Committee by July 2, 2012.
Once the spots are allocated by nation, it's up to national federations to dole them out to their top athletes. The most competitive nations come up with detailed procedures a few years in advance of each Olympic Games, and those are followed strictly throughout the athlete selection process in the hopes of avoiding controversy of the sort that happened with the US team during the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Where things get tricky is in nations with lots of talent. Even the best mountain bike racer producing nations in the world only get up to three male and two female athlete spots. Take a country like Switzerland, which is famous for its depth of male cross country mountain bike talent and the competition is fierce just to make the team. The same is true for the Canadian and American women hoping to get to the start line in the London.
To read an example of how a nation like the United States is handling mountain bike Olympic team qualification, read this article.
Unlike some Olympic sports, all mountain bike Olympians must reach the age of 19 in the year of the Olympic Games, so any fast youngsters are not eligible for selection. New Zealand's Anton Cooper recently found this out firsthand - an appeal of the minimum age was denied to the junior sensation.
Bart Brentjens and Paola Pezzo made history in 1996 by becoming the first winners of the Olympic cross country mountain bike races held at Conyers Park near Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States.
Four years later in Sydney, Australia, gold medals went to Miguel Martinez and Paola Pezzo.
In Athens, Greece, in 2004, Julien Absalon and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa took a turn standing atop the podium.
Finally, in Beijing, China, Julien Absalon and Sabine Spitz showed everyone just how fast they could be on one of the most important days of their careers.
Mountain biking wasn't added to the Olympics until 1996 in part because the sport hadn't existed for long before that. It was born in the 70s, and the first mountain bike national championships wasn't held until 1983 in the United States. Mountain biking quickly caught on globally, and the first UCI-recognized mountain bike world championships were held in 1990.