There is one hot favourite to take the gold medal in the men’s field. In 2008, while still a U23 rider, he won bronze by narrowly beating countryman Christoph Sauser. In 2012 it came down to a sprint where he lacked the punch and took away silver. He has one more medal to win to complete the ‘Spitz Collection’ and it’s hard to see anyone challenging him by the end of the race. Nino Schurter has been the dominant rider all season. Of the 11 races he has competed in he has won nine, including three out of four world cups and world champs. He skipped Mont St Anne, instead traveling to Rio early, but this won’t affect his form and he is unlikely to let his finish in this Games be as close as the last two.
There are two men in the field who already have what Schurter covets most. Yaroslav Kulhavy is the defending champion. He’s known for running a bit hot and cold. A rider who is either at the front, or out of contention. He’s also known for bringing his best when it matters most, such as at world champs and the Olympics. But this year he was only able to match Schurter for the first half of the race at his home world champs, falling just 17 seconds short after a surge in the last lap. Riding in to a car door on Friday has left him with some bruises, but it shouldn’t affect his performance. If he can stay in touch he’s probably the most likely to really challenge for the win.
Julien Absalon is the most decorated rider in history. He has won more world cups, more world championships, and more Olympic gold medals than anyone else. Twice the Olympic champion and the only other world cup winner this season, on the Rio course he may lack the punch needed to take a third gold medal. But fresh off a win in Mont St Anne, between his wealth of experience and his improved technical skills he remains a hot favourite.
Only one other rider has won a top level race since the London Olympic race. In the first round in 2013 Australian Dan McConnell was a surprise winner after conditions changed suddenly. He’s not a medal contender in Rio and neither are either of the other two former medal winners (Hermida won silver in 2004 and Fontana held on for bronze after his seat post snapped off in the last lap in 2012) so if any of the favourites fail to perform who is ready to snap up their first Olympic medal?
In contrast to the experience of the top three favourites, the next three contenders are all competing at the Games for the first time.
Maxime Marotte had a storming start to the 2016 season but his form appears to have tapered off over the last few weeks. But if he has timed a final peak of form he is most likely to threaten for the podium.
The French are a real force at the moment across the elite and U23 fields. 21 year old Viktor Koretzky has podiumed twice this season, most recently with 2nd place in Mont St Anne. On such a big day and surrounded by such a high performing national team (Absalon and Marotte) he is bound to feature among the race leaders.
Don’t forget about the Swiss. Schurter is the leader of the pack but Mathias Fluckiger demonstrated that he is coming in to form at the right time with his first world cup podium in Mont St Anne. It’s possible that he’s timed it just right to make the top three on the biggest day of his career.
And what about…
Peter Sagan? Better known for wearing a green jersey in the Tour de France and pulling wheelies on a road bike, Sagan was the MTB junior world champion in 2008. He’s no slouch on the dirt, but he’s not going to match the best in the world on the biggest day of their careers. He’s got skills, but it takes more than wheelies to feature at this level. Compared to the guys who do it for a living he looks decidedly uncomfortable on the descents so he’ll need to rely on his roadie fitness to catch up on the climbs. That’ll cost him too much over an hour and a half of full gas racing to score a high finish. Top ten? Maybe. Top five? Magic 8 ball says no.
Sam Gaze! The New Zealand champion has won two U23 world cups and the U23 world championships so far this year. At 20 years of age he’s the 2nd youngest rider in the field (his trade team mate, Simon Andreasson is still only 18). What can we expect from him in Rio? Realistically, top five is probably out of reach, but a top ten finish is definitely possible. My money puts him ahead of Sagan at the end of the race.