Four Americans will take to the start this weekend at the Olympic Games mountain bike races. Georgia Gould and Lea Davison will race Saturday while Todd Wells and Sam Schultz will race Sunday.
Gould and Wells are experienced Olympians, and they've been able to share that experience with Olympic newbies Davison and Schultz. It's been an informal sort of mentoring relationship.
"I think in general, Sam learns a lot from Todd. I don't think it's the kind of mentoring that is obvious, it's more like osmosis," said Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling Mountain Bike Programs Director. "Through osmosis, he's learning from Todd. Todd has the confidence of being to two Olympics. Todd is rolling with all of this stuff more than Sam would, because this is Sam's first time.
"It's the same with Georgia and Lea. I wouldn't say the mentoring is right out there, in your face. I think there's stuff to be learned by Sam and Lea from Todd and Georgia."
Davison said, "It's nice to have teammates here who have experienced the Olympics. Georgia has definitely been helpful and so has Todd in what to expect, when we get here, now this is going happen. It's all exciting. We're definitely coming together as a team. Georgia and I pre-rode the course yesterday together. We're helping each other out."
Schultz said, "It's good to have the veterans on the squad to give us the scoop and fill us in on some of the questions we have. They've been through it all and know what's happening. It's cool because Lea and I are completely wide eyed and blown away. It actually makes more a good mix. Lea and I are super pumped and then we have the veterans that keep it a little bit more grounded and know the ropes. It's been good." Schultz is the only one of the American mountain bikers staying in the athletes' village.
Following a training camp in southern Germany, the US team has been in London since Monday. The mountain bikers have had a chance to ride the course and shared their impressions.
Gullickson noted that there is one new section on the course which will be important. "For Todd, Sam and Lea, this is the first time they've seen it, this week. It was nice to have Georgia be able to talk to them about that last week during our training camp."
Gould is the only rider on the US team to have raced the course, which she did last summer at the Olympic Test Event. "I think the fact that she was able to race on the course and gauge that effort and how the race is going to play out, even though it wasn't quite at the speed that this Olympic race will go off at. I think that will help her have an idea of how this race, in theory, might play out."
Gould said she's taken every opportunity thus far to be on the course. "I was at the training days last year, the training days this year and also the test event last year. You can ride a hot lap on the course, but it's different when you're racing it. I think just having that experience racing this course for me is good even though they've changed the course a little bit since then. Just knowing how that race played out and knowing that it might be a little bit more of a tactical race than each person against the course like some of the World Cups can be. I'm definitely glad that I had that experience."
Wells called it a "fun" course. "It's short [Just under 5km - Ed.]. I think maybe it's a 12-minute lap so we're going to do a bunch of laps out there. I think there are six rough, technical sections, so the way the course is that it's very smooth then you go through a rock garden and then it's really smooth and then rough. It's not so natural. A lot of times if it's a rough area, then the whole course is rough or if there's a smooth area, then the whole course is smooth. Here it's on, off, on, off. I think that will wear on us since we're going to go through those sections so many times through the race."
Wells noted that the Olympic field is smaller than the World Cups. "There are fewer riders here at the Olympics because each country can only qualify one to three riders, so it's a smaller field," he said. "I think it's going to be a pretty typical World Cup sort of race and the best guys come to the front in those races. This course is very firm and fast, so it's small differences between the riders. If it's muddy and slow and the average speed is eight miles per hour, one guy who is stronger by the end of the race gains a big-time gap. Here it's fast, so even if you're not good or you're off a little bit, you can still maintain a lot of speed and momentum. I think there will be small gaps between the riders."
Schultz is all fired up about the course. "The course is awesome. I was psyched about it when I rode it on the test day. I don't know how they improved it exactly, but it rides way better now. It just flows a lot better. They've smoothed out some of the choppy sections that were awkward switchbacks and that sort of thing. They have that stuff moving really well. They added a couple technical features since I've been out here. It definitely keeps you on your toes out there.
"There's plenty of sections where you can ride it tons of times and stay entertained and learn something new every time you ride it just because there are a lot of high-speed, rocky sections that you come into. If you know the line, you can cruise through it. If you're not super confident you can't really see where you want to go so you're relying on that memory. If memory serves you wrong, you're going to end up hurting. It's good to ride it a bunch."
Schultz predicts that a main lead group that will get whittled down in the technical sections. "Most people have a solid line dialed in, but it's easy to make a mistake on that, especially if you go into it cross-eyed. If you screw up on one of those sections and lose a couple seconds it's hard to bring that back. If you do that a couple times, you're definitely burning a lot of matches. I definitely think the top guys are going to have to have everything completely dialed and run a smooth race to get through it."
Davison compared the Olympic course to the World Cups she has raced. "I think it's really different than a lot of the World Cups we do, especially the past two World Cups. Windham was kinda one long climb, one long descent, kind of old-school course design. This one is more short, punchy climbs that come one after another in succession. Mont-Saint-Anne is kinda similar, but it has three longer climbs, this one is boom, boom, boom. You have to hit it consistently. I've been training specifically for this course and I think I'm prepared for it.
"I love the course. Surprisingly, it's very challenging," said Davison. "The climbs just keep coming. There's not a lot of recovery, which I expected. There's technical sections thrown in there so whenever you get recovery, you're not really recovering because you have to be on it for those technical sections. It's a really challenging course and I think it's going to weed out a deserving victor."
Those deserving victors will be determined this weekend. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for live coverage of the women's and men's mountain bike events.