It’s almost time. In sport, the term ‘four more years’ has nothing to do with American politics and everything to do with one day, one race, one moment. To get it right, to confirm what is already known, to repeat history, to face down the demons of the past, to make history. To take years of training, passion, dedication, competition, successes, failures, nightmares and dreams and bring it all together in one perfect race, on one day.
In four years you could race as many as 24 world cup races. Four world championships. But only one Olympics. The pinnacle of cross country mountain biking.
At 3:30am on Sunday morning (NZ time), 30 women will take to the start line. Not all of them are there to win or medal. Some are there as developing riders, some from countries where the sport is still in a state of development. Some will be pulled before the final lap so as not to disrupt the front of the race. Those riders have every right to be there, and while we won’t get to see much of them in the coverage, they’ll give as much of themselves to the race as the leaders and might even receive the loudest shouts of encouragement. But all eyes will undoubtedly be on the front of the race. So who are the medal contenders?
The depth in the women’s field is unprecedented. I see at least 9 medal contenders, and three obvious gold medal contenders:
Catharine Pendrel – Her win in Mont St Anne 2 weeks ago showed the form she has been threatening all year. Electing to miss the Canadian national championships in favour of staying at home to complete a solid block of training demonstrates the importance of getting it right this time around. This is Catharine’s third Olympic Games. In 2008 she was a strong medal contender coming off a 2nd and a win in back to back world cups a couple of weeks before the Games, but after an almost race long battle with Irina Kalentieva she was beaten out for the bronze medal in the final minutes. In 2012 she came in as the form favourite and started strong but finished in 9th place. Catharine has focused on the process this time around, and made very deliberate choices to ensure getting it right. She has the form, the skill and the experience to fend off all others.
Annika Langvad – Undoubtedly the form rider for most of the 2016 season, Annika has two world cup wins and a rainbow jersey so far. There were hints of some cracks in Mont St Anne, and this is her first Games. She definitely has the ability to win, but the question is whether she has it right now.
Jolanda Neff – Probably the most unpredictable rider at the pointy end of the field, Jolanda avoided travel early in the season missing the first round of the world cup, then withdrew from the 2nd at the last minute due to illness. She came back to win round 3 despite a spectacular crash on a course that caused a number of DNFs but was off the pace at world champs and round 4. She didn’t race round 5 in Mont St Anne. Instead she came 8th in the Olympic women’s road race. Jolanda often suffers in the heat and after some cooler days Rio has been heating up, hitting 35 out at Deodoro Park on Wednesday. A year ago though, it was only 25 on race date. If conditions are favourable to her personally, and if she is having an ‘on’ day, there’s no question she’s capable of taking home the gold. But she’s young and it’s her first Olympics, and that has often thrown favourites off their game.
Normally if there are three favourites to win it might suggest the medals are all but tied up, but coming as a top three favourite to win never guarantees a medal. If it’s not their day any of these three can finish not only off the top step, but outside of the top three altogether. There are outside contenders for the gold as well.
Jenny Rissveds – The youngest in the field by 2 months, Jenny already has an elite world cup win to her name, following in the footsteps of Jolanda Neff, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and Julie Bresset who also won elite world cups while still U23 (Julie Bresset went on to win gold in London 2012 but is not racing in Rio). She was 2nd in Albstadt earlier this year, and in 2015 won every U23 world cup. We’ve seen glimpses of pure brilliance in this young rider, but so far not the consistency. She’s got the goods and is almost certain to be a force to be reckoned with over the coming years, but she would have to have the perfect day and some luck on her side to win this time around.
Maja Wloszczowska – Maja has an Olympic silver from 2008. Over the years she’s shown the sort of consistency that yields multiple world cup and world championship podiums, including the top step. As recently as worlds this year she was in bronze medal position. Definitely an outside contender for the gold medal here but with her experience (this is her third Games), her recent form, and the bad luck at worlds fanning the flames she is at least a strong medal contender and a chance for the win.
And then there are the rest of the medal contenders:
Emily Batty – Emily has had the best season of her career already this year, and there’s a pretty good chance she could top it off with one special medal. She was third at world champs and also at two world cups, including Mont St Anne two weeks ago where she consistently moved closer to the podium throughout the race and grabbed it by making a running pass in the final minutes! She’s also very hungry for a result at the Olympics. In London she broke her collarbone days out from the race. She toughed it out and both started and finished the race, but still feels the disappointment. She is ready to have the race of her life.
Lea Davison – Lea eats a lot (it’s her Twitter handle and everything) including pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast despite what the first male Olympic gold medalist (Bart Brentjens) says, but right now the thing she’s most hungry for is a medal. She’s got a bronze and a silver from the last two world champs respectively. She raced in London and while not quite able to crack the top 10 (she finished in 11th place) she knows what the Olympics are all about and has been able to focus her preparation accordingly. Apart from silver at worlds, she hasn’t had the results she’s capable of this year on paper, but she’s thrown down some real challenges during races and if she puts it all together a medal is not out of her reach.
Katerina Nash – Speaking of knowing what the Olympics are all about, Katerina knows more than most. This will be her 5th games, but unlike most she has a collection of both Summer and Winter Games. What very few others have, and only one other in this field, is Olympic mountain bike experience from day one. That’s right, Katerina raced the mountain bike in Atlanta as a teenager! She also raced in London four years ago. But just a year ago she wasn’t planning on Rio. It was having a home (Czech) world champs that prompted her to race mountain bikes outside of the US again, and it was her storming form that prompted her team to suggest she consider Rio. She’s an outside chance for a medal, but expect to see her near the front.
Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flessja – GRD can go one better than Katerina… all of her four previous Olympic appearances have been in mountain biking. Oh, and she won gold in Athens in 2004. She’s an outside chance too, but almost always hangs out in the top five or six in world cups, occasionally landing inside the top three. If anyone knows the drill it’s GRD and I have it on good authority (hers) that she’s still racing because she’s still up there and she still loves it. Keep an eye out for the guy running alongside her during the race (probably in Norway kit) – that’ll be her husband and coach, Kenneth.
The only rider missing from that list is Sabine Spitz who, with a medal of each colour already, would be included if she wasn’t suffering from a knee injury. It’s her last XCO season and she’s had a tough few weeks, with a puncture at world champs and a broken chain off the start 2 weeks ago in Mont St Anne, that would have helped fuel her medal bid. Her 3-medal haul from four Olympics is the current record for MTB medals. A 4th would ensure she would continue to hold on to that record.