By Sue George, with additional reporting by Rob Jones
After last fall's mountain bike Test Event in Beijing, China, many riders lamented that the Olympic course was not technically challenging enough and asked for changes. Then they arrived earlier this month to find a very different and much more technical course than they were expecting.
The roughly 4.5 kilometre circuit has undergone drastic revisions since it was charitably described as a road course. Now, it is very technical, with an added switchback climb and rock-strewn descents. The riders have been praising the alterations.
"The course has changed a lot since the test event," said Spain's Jose Antonio Hermida, who won silver in Athens in 2004. "We were complaining last year that it wasn't hard enough, now we find ourselves in a situation where it might almost be too hard!"
"The first part is all up-down, up-down. Then there is a long climb after the feedzone with a very fast downhill right after. It's a beautiful course, a hard course, and now it is a course worthy of the Olympics," said Hermida.
"It is the most difficult course of the year," said U23 World Champion Nino Schurter, a member of the powerful Swiss team.
"It's pretty brutal," agreed Canada's Seamus McGrath, who finished ninth in Athens. "The heat back in the woods is like an oven, and I expect a lot of riders will get into trouble by going out too fast."
His team-mate Catharine Pendrel, winner of the Bromont World Cup, said, "The start is still the same; however, the descent afterwards is much more challenging than before. They added big rocks, steep climbs and a long switchback climb." She forecasted a "race of attrition" due to the course's difficulty.
"The climbs are steep, so it will suit someone with a high power to weight ratio, like Marga [Fullana] at the Worlds," predicted Pendrel. Reigning women's World Champion Fullana, from Spain, is a one of the favourites going into the women's race on Saturday morning.