Taking aim at #4

The audacity to think that it is possible to turn a 45-minute interview into an exposé of an entire...

An interview with Julien Absalon, August 31, 2007

An athlete who has achieved as much as Julien Absalon has, such as three world championship titles and almost too many national titles to count - not to mention the Olympic gold medal - commands a degree of respect that's difficult to bestow upon someone so upbeat and downright approachable. Cyclingnews' Wendy Booher interviewed Absalon with one week to go until the World Mountain Bike Championships, when he will take aim at a fourth, consecutive world title. With nods to his competition, he also reveals a bit of how he will defend the Olympic gold medal in Beijing.

The audacity to think that it is possible to turn a 45-minute interview into an exposé of an entire career must seem laughable - if not highly irritating - to a pro racer like Julien Absalon. Often forced to speak a language that is not his own and answer the usual battery of questions relating to his multiple championship titles (for which most answers can be found online), the 27 year-old Absalon searches for words with which he feels comfortable and tends to grow uneasy as questioning plods onward.

No doubt like many other athletes, Absalon may regard interviews as perhaps one of the burdens to being a pro. However, bring up the Olympic gold medal that Absalon brought home from Athens three years ago, and he responds with a brilliance beyond compare. Only two other men own gold medals for the Olympic cross-country event and the rarity of that distinguish Absalon even more. To really capture an impression of Absalon though, watch him race; for only then does his persona become quintessentially clear.

Where others gingerly roll down a steep, scree-carpeted descent, Absalon locks his brakes and "skis" down using his rear wheel as a rudder for balance and stability. With only two chainrings, he's built up enough power by training in the rugged, mountainous region in the northeast of France to outsprint and outkick the competition nearly every time. His skill at appraising a course in order to pick out the best line yields a riding style iconic in its smoothness and feigned effortlessness. What you won't see is his mental prowess that - combined with his physical strength and technical acumen - most often delivers Absalon over the finish line in first place.

"I think that at a high level of competition, mental training is important," explained Absalon. "I think it makes a difference because all the riders are similar physically, but it's the mind that makes the difference. When you want to win, you are able to push more and when you are able to push the limits, you will go faster than the others."

Ready for Worlds

He will need his troika of talents to operate at 100 percent both this weekend, when the final round of the Swisspower Cup takes place near Basel, Switzerland, and next weekend at the World Mountain Bike Championships at Fort William, Scotland. The most celebrated names in mountain bike racing are expected to race in Switzerland, which will be sort of a warm-up before the championship race the following week. Absalon's main goal for the 2007 season is to defend his world champion title for a fourth time and if all goes well in Switzerland, then he will be more ready than ever to face the competition in Scotland.

"I think (José Antonio) Hermida is really strong this season and he is now focused on the World Championships - I think it will be a big fight," said Absalon. "(Nino) Schurter is in good position; he's young and I think he is the future. Maybe (Christoph) Sauser could also do well. I think there are five contenders for the victory."

If, however, there is a chink in his armor, Hermida, Schurter, Sauser and all the rest will be prepared to strike, especially since the rainbow stripes have been in Absalon's possession for so long and especially since the Olympics are now less than a year away.

It's all about the Olympics

"It is possible to compare the World Championships and the Olympics because the riders are the same," Absalon explained. "For example, we are always the same racers in France and we all want the national jersey, but the Olympics are different - they are like magic. You have the spirit of the Olympics; you have more media, more pressure and it's only once every four years. If you lose your chance at the Olympics, you have to wait four years to get it again."

Training for the Olympics for Absalon will start almost immediately after the World Championships with a reconnaissance trip to Beijing to survey the cross-country course. This is something critically strategic to Absalon's training program because of what he'll do next with that information. He will likely design a route near his home that mimics the Olympic course and by practicing on it regularly, he will minimize every margin of error relative to the course. He has already used this technique to prepare for the race at Fort William. The weather at worlds is the only wild card at this point and, depending on how you look at it, it's just his luck that the weather where he trains has been crappier than usual.

"Fort Williams is fun but if it rains, the same course can be really hard," he admitted. "There are lots of artificial sections, some wood sections, and lots of turns. It is both physically and technically demanding so it's good for a World Championships."

Lessons learned

He has learned the finely tuned machinations of racing strategy through trial-and-error since in order to realize success, one must also experience failure. At a tender 23 years, Absalon ambitiously targeted the win at the world championships in Lugano, Italy after an exhausting race season in 2003. He finished a discouraging 13th, dragged himself home, fell into bed, and slept for practically the entire next week. He woke up just in time to get to the start line of the final world cup race in Kaprun, Austria, where he placed third and won the world cup series overall thanks to previous podium finishes.

The lesson he came away with from the 2003 season seems a little too simple for him to have missed: race to win. Now he sets his goals in the winter and plans his season around a handful of carefully selected races that he aims to win. There is also a fleeting moment each season when he's at his best and controlling the arrival of that moment, like he did at the 2004 Olympics. This will be his key to defending the gold medal in Beijing.

"It was a strange day in Athens," said Absalon. "I was very prepared mentally and physically for the race and it was like in a dream. I was strong physically and I was like a machine - just prepared to pedal and to go fast. I can get this sensation only one time during the season."

Next week when Absalon takes his place among the world's best in Scotland, he will stand out as the race favorite wearing the rainbow stripes of the world champion, with the Olympic rings printed on his shorts and jersey, and a splash of gold paint to dignify the Olympian's bike. This will be his last major race before all attention gets focused on the 2008 Games. If he wins well, isn't that what we expected? If victory goes to a new world champion, then the race to Beijing is on, stay tuned.

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