Absalon aims to make it three Olympic golds in a row

Cycling at the 2012 Olympic Games will wrap up this weekend, August 11-12 with the final events in its programme: the elite men's and elite women's cross country mountain bike races. It will be the fifth time that mountain biking is an Olympic sport; it debuted in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia.

In some Olympics past, the sport of mountain biking has been dominated by one or just a few riders; however, if the competition at this year's World Cup is any indication, mountain bike fans are in for a treat with a handful of gold medal contenders taking to the start line in each race.

The course

The Olympic mountain bike race will be run on an entirely man-made, purpose-built course on 550 acres of land featuring mostly grassland. The venue is Hadleigh Farm, and it's owned by the Salvation Army. Following some modifications, the course is expected to remain open to the public after the Olympic Games.

Each lap is about five kilometers. The total number of laps to be raced is still to be publicized, but the total duration of the races is expected to be about 1.5 hours. The "short" course is consistent with recent trends in cross country racing as the UCI has worked to make the discipline more spectator-friendly, with shorter courses and faster lap times, meaning more chances to view the racers in action.

The Olympic course is very open, with few trees. It means that spectators will be able to see much of the race. It also means the racers may face winds that could influence the race, something not usually an issue in mountain bike races, which are typically run on courses more sheltered by trees and mountains.

"It will be a fast course with several short, twisty climbs. They added two more rock gardens and a steeper climb since last year," said Catharine Pendrel (Canada). "The climbs will separate people by fitness, but it's an interesting course in that it's very open and near the ocean and could be very windy."

Elite women's race

Reigning world champion and recently crowned 2012 World Cup champion Catharine Pendrel (Canada) is the favorite for the gold medal on Saturday, but it will not be easy for her to win considering the depth of competition this year in the elite women's field. Pendrel has proven she can win on this course - she took victory in the Olympic Test event here last summer.  She is hungry for a medal after missing out on them in the last Olympics.

"For me fourth was a huge victory in Beijing. I rose to the occasion and exceeded my expectations of how I would do. I hope to do that again this year," Pendrel told Cyclingnews. "I've improved across the board. My training has evolved. I'm fitter. I can push more watts. I'm a better student of the sport - I'm looking everywhere for those little gains. I'm learning tactically and we discuss the best approach for each race. In every aspect of riding, I'm always trying to find the gains.

"There are six or more women capable of the win on the day and I'm going to have to bring my A game."

After dominating the sport in the past, 2004 Olympic Gold medallist Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway), took a break to have a baby. Her comeback took some time, but with two World Cup wins this season, with one just two weeks ago in Val d'Isere, France, she showed the timing of her return to top form is perfect. It was her second World Cup win of this season. Her vast experience could be her biggest asset. Dahle Flesjaa is a veteran of Olympic competition; she raced at the first Olympic mountain bike contest in Atlanta 16 years ago.

Two of the three Olympic medallists from 2008 are returning. Sabine Spitz (Germany) will aim to defend her title of Olympic champion although she has not placed all that well in World Cups this season. She also won a bronze medal in 2004.

Russian Irina Kalentieva, a past bronze medallist, is a bit of an unknown as she has skipped several World Cups to prepare for the big day in London.

Julie Bresset of France will be mixing it up with the elder stateswomen of the sport. The 2011 under 23 champion has been the most consistent rider to challenge Pendrel and she's a regular on the World Cup podium.

Pendrel will race with another young rider as a national teammate: Emily Batty. A rising star, Batty has stepped up a level this season, even finishing second in an early season World Cup.

Pendrel will have some other teammates - not national teammates, but trade teammates - both of whom have shown the form to be at the front of World Cup races several times this season: Georgia Gould is the best US medal hope in mountain biking while Katerina Nash, who lives in the US, will represent her native Czech Republic.

The British crowd will no doubt rally behind Annie Last, who is the first British female mountain biker to qualify to race the Olympics since 2000. Last won a cross country eliminator World Cup earlier this season and spent some time at the front of the field in an early season World Cup. The 22-year-old Brit is constantly improving as her career continues to mature.

2008 Olympic silver medallist Maja Wloszczowska of Poland will be notably absent after she broke her foot during a crash in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. Wloszczowska's was Pendrel's primary challenger at the 2011 world championships in Switzerland.  Annika Langavad of Denmark is also out due to injury.

Elite men's race

All eyes and most of the pressure will be on Julien Absalon of France on Sunday morning. In the lead-up to London, mountain bike fans have been wondering if he will be able to make it three gold medals in a row at the Olympic Games.

"It is not being able to obtain a third Olympic title that motivates me. It is above all to win the best race in the world that exists in our discipline," Absalon said at a press conference at the Olympic Village on Wednesday according to Sport.fr. Although he will continue to race professionally for two more years, Absalon expects this Olympics to be his last.

A year ago, many thought Absalon was beatable on Olympic turf, even after he won the Olympic test event, as he was no longer dominating the World Cup, but if anyone can peak for a single day event, it is the Frenchman. He reminded us of his greatness earlier this season when he won the World Cups in Houffalize and in La Bresse, France, and last weekend's win in the Belgian GP showed he is right on schedule to peak again.

Also a year ago, many would have predicted Jaroslav Kulhavy would cruise to Olympic victory because crushing his competition by cruising solo to wins was just the kind of thing he was doing at all the major races in 2011. However, the reigning world champion and 2011 World Cup champion has not dominated in 2012. The Czech rider has ridden consistently among the top riders, but others have taken turns stealing the spotlight at World Cups.

Nino Schurter will lead the Swiss powerhouse team, which also includes Florian Vogel and Ralph Naef, in London. Having just won the 2012 World Cup, even after missing two rounds, Schurter has been the most consistently successful rider on the international circuit this year.

"Julien Absalon is still the man to beat. He is very strong this season again," Schurter told Cyclingnews. "The past two years, I was thinking maybe he was slower, but no chance - he is still able to win the big races. He's one of the main favorites, then Jaroslav [Kulhavy], then Burry Stander, and maybe [Marco] Fontana.

"There are maybe 10 riders - if they have a good day and a little bit of luck - that can win a medal that day. But there are maybe four riders - if everything is going well and there are no mechanical problems or illness - that can win the race."

If it came down to a Schurter vs. Absalon duel, it wouldn't be the first time, but as Absalon and others have found out the hard way, Schurter, a former world champion and the bronze medal winner in 2008 in Beijing, is a tough man to beat in a sprint for the finish line.

2008 silver medalist Jean Christoph Peraud of France is a bit of an unknown this time around. He will be the only man on the start line to have also done this year's Tour de France; the question is has he recovered enough to go for a medal or help his teammate Absalon do so.

Former U23 world champion and Windham World Cup winner Burry Stander has been patiently working his way up the elite ranks and could well take a medal or even win in London. The South African is a consistent rider, who has proven he can win big races, long or short.

Spain's hopes will largely rest on the shoulders of Jose Hermida, who won a silver medal in 2004 in Athens; however, Carlos Coloma has also stepped onto a World Cup podium this year and seems to be having a breakout season.

Italy will be cheering on Marco Fontana while Germans will support Manuel Fumic. Both are Cannondale teammates on the World Cup circuit and while they are still looking for their first World Cup wins, they are podium regulars with real medal chances on Sunday.

North Americans will be rooting for Geoff Kabush and Max Plaxton (both of Canada) and Todd Wells (United States). All have proven themselves as solid World Cup riders over the years. Sam Schultz (United States) will be riding his first Olympic Games after winning the cross country national championships in July.

British fans will cheer on Liam Killeen. He was seventh at the 2004 Olympic Games and fifth in 2008.

Live coverage on Cyclingnews

With so many favorites capable of winning medals, the weekend's racing should prove exciting. As Florian Vogel (Switzerland) said, "It's hard to tell before the race how it will unfold. It's still a mountain bike race and normally the fastest rider wins. That's the nice thing about mountain bike racing. I think it won't be different at the Olympics." What remains to be seen is who will be the fastest each day.

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews news for live coverage of the elite women's cross country, starting at 12:30 pm local time (7:30 am US EDT) on Saturday, August 11 and the elite men's cross country, starting at 1:30 pm local time (8:30 am US EDT) on Sunday, August 12.

Check out the two videos below, from the archives.  The first takes a look at the Olympic course and the second features 1996 Olympic champion Bart Brentjens talking about the 2012 Olympic mountain bike course.

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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews.  She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.