By Rob Jones in Beijing
Cycling at the Beijing Olympic Games concluded with the mountain bike cross-country on Saturday. Both the men's and women's races were held on the same day, after the women's race was postponed because of 'unsafe' conditions due to rain on Thursday. The new Olympic champions were the dominant riders in both races, leading from the first lap.
Sabine Spitz (Germany) took the women's title, while Julien Absalon (France) became the first man to successfully defend the Olympic mountain bike title. The weather was possibly the best seen thus far in Beijing for the Games, with blue skies, a slight breeze and temperatures in the low 30s (Celsius).
The ground was almost completely dried out from the soaking two days earlier, leaving a hard and fast track. The women did six laps and the men eight on the 4.5 kilometre course.
Spitz fulfilled her dream of an Olympic gold medal by dominating the field early on. Silver went to Polish rider Maja Wloszczowska and Irina Kalentyeva (Russia) scored the bronze medal. The best Chinese rider was Chengyuan Ren in fifth place, 2'29 back.
The race in the unforgiving Beijing heat on a very technical course saw some of the pre-race favourites drop out early. Margarita Fullana (Spain), Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway) and Marie-Helene Premont (Canada) all were not able to finish the race.
Spitz had a good start and was at the front together with Fullana and Wloszczowska. Only a half lap (of six) into the race Spitz put in a very strong move. She completed the first lap 4.3-kilometre lap in 16'51, 21 seconds faster than her closest competitors.
From there Spitz kept pulling away until she held a commanding lead of around 50 seconds until the end, giving her an extremely gratifying win. "I felt pure joy that I had finally achieved this goal after so many years of hard work. Winning the gold medal at the Olympics is the crowning glory of a career."
It was almost expected that Julien Absalon would win his second Olympic gold medal in the men's cross country race and Absalon delivered. The surprise came from his compatriot Jean-Christophe Peraud, who stormed to a silver medal, a minute after Absalon celebrated his win. The Swiss duo of Christoph Sauser and Nino Schurter delivered an exciting battle for bronze, with Schurter edging out Sauser by a few seconds.
The Laoshan mountain bike course was criticized after the test event last year for being too easy, but the riders should have been careful what they asked for, as the re-designed track was far harder than anyone had anticipated.
"It's the most complicated, difficult technical race. There were lots of stones and no time to rest," Absalon said after the race. Peraud agreed that it was one of the hardest courses he'd ever ridden. "After I finished, I was so tired that I had to take a rest, because I couldn't feel my legs anymore," he said.
Absalon was impervious to the numerous steep and rocky descents which spelled the end of many of the favourites' races. Even Switzerland's Christoph Sauser, the reigning world champion, had to concede the race to his 22-year-old team-mate Nino Schurter, who took the bronze. Absalon topped Schurter as the rider to beat in London in four years' time.