by Justin Davis
BEIJING, Aug 23, 2008 (AFP) – Frenchman Julien Absalon took his mountain bike status to new heights on Saturday when he became the first rider to defend the men’s Olympic cross country title.
Absalon kept the gold in French hands for the third Olympics in a row – following Miguel Martinez’s victory at Sydney in 2000 – thanks to a commanding display early in the 36km race which left his big rivals trailing.
At only 28 years old, Absalon can afford to look positively towards London, however the French legend had only one thought on Saturday.
“The Olympic Games is a massive motivation for every athlete and four years passes quickly, as it has from Athens to Beijing,” said Absalon, who finished well ahead of compatriot Jean-Christophe Peraud with Nino Schurter pipping world champion and Swiss compatriot Christoph Sauser to the bronze.
“So why not? But right now, I just want to savor this gold.”
Absalon used the same race tactic from the gold winner in the women’s race
– Germany’s Sabine Spitz – as he put his rivals to the sword with a solid start to the 36km race on a demanding 4.5km course.
A highly-fancied Swiss trio failed to match Absalon’s pace after he had begun to steadily grind out a lead by the second of eight laps.
And in the end, it allowed him to join an elite club of Olympic athletes who have come in with the pressure, and survived to confirm their champion status.
“It’s great to do the double. It feels totally different (from 2004), but this just confirms what I achieved in Athens,” added Absalon, who denied that he had made his victory look easy.
“I had as tough a race as everyone else. When I saw the chance to make the break I went for it. After that I really gave it everything I had.”
In the women’s 27km race defending champion Gunn-Rita Dahle from Norway was one of several contenders to fall victim to a course that was finally mastered by Germany’s Spitz.
A 36-year-old from southern Germany who only began racing at the relatively late age of 22, Spitz was determined to improve on her bronze medal in Athens.
She started fast and was soon racing on her own to gold ahead of Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska. She finished with the silver ahead of Russian Irina Kalentieva, who overtook Canada’s Catharine Pendrel on the final lap to grab the bronze.
“I feel pure joy at what I have finally achieved after so many years of hard work,” said Spitz, who lists her hobbies as baking and drinking lots of white coffee.
“Winning the gold medal at the Olympic Games is the crowning glory.”
On a course that tested some of the biggest names in the sport, the spectators spared a thought for stricken African Antipass Kwari.
His historic first participation for a Zimbabwean in a men’s Olympic mountain bike race ended in disaster.
“The race was terrible, and in the first four minutes I had a puncture,”
said Kwari, who struggled early on in negotiating the trickier parts of the climbs and descents.
“I had to wait 20 minutes before I could change my tire and then I had another puncture. And after that, my third (replacement) wheel had too low tire pressure.
“I am very disappointed,” he added. “In the beginning I was in the middle of the group and in training the technical stuff on the track was smooth for me.”