On Monday, the world will be watching as the best mountain bikers toe the line in Tokyo for the Olympic men's XCO mountain bike race. Coming around every four years, a winning ride at the Olympics is one of the most sought-after accomplishments in the sport. Even people who don't know much about mountain biking know what a gold medal means.
So far this season, cross-country mountain bikers have had four opportunities to test their legs on the World Cup circuit. The current series leader is Mathias Flückiger of Switzerland, who has won the last two rounds. The defending Olympic Champion, Nino Schurter, is also Swiss, but he hasn't been on the same dominating form that we've seen from him in the past.
The Tokyo mountain bike course is located near Izu, which is a city south of Tokyo with views of Mount Fuji. The course is more technical than past Olympic courses, featuring steep climbs, rock garden descents, and mandatory drops.
The season thus far has been defined by riders like Flückiger, who focuses solely on mountain biking, competing against riders like Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock, who also race on the road.
At the first World Cup round in Albstadt, Germany, the talk about town was that Tom Pidcock and Mathieu van der Poel would be racing. Both riders cut their teeth as juniors and under-23 riders in the off-road discipline of cyclo-cross and have seen success on the mountain bike as well. Van der Poel has won mountain bike World Cups in the past, while Great Britain's Pidcock is the 2020 U23 cross-country World Champion.
They both compete on the road as well, with Van der Poel riding for Alpecin-Fenix and Pidcock the Ineos Grenadiers. They went head-to-head at the second World Cup in Nove Mesto, with Van der Poel taking the short track and Pidcock finding victory in the XCO.
Both of the prolific riders are considered favorites for Tokyo but both have question marks by their names as well. Pidcock broke his collarbone earlier this year after being struck by a motorist and hasn't won a race since being back on the bike.
Van der Poel, for his part, won Stage 2 of this year's Tour de France and held the yellow jersey until Stage 8. He dropped out of the race after that to focus on preparing for Tokyo, but will the demands of those eight days of racing put him in jeopardy?
Pure mountain bikers
While Van der Poel and Pidcock stayed away from rounds three and four of the World Cup, it was Flückiger's time to play. He swept both rounds, taking wins in both the short track and XCO races.
One of the most consistent riders this season has been Ondrej Cink from the Czech Republic - the racer has never finished outside of the top five in the four World Cup races. However, his Achilles' heel seems to be technical descents, of which there are many in Tokyo.
No one should rule out France's Jordan Sarrou and Victor Koretzky. Sarrou wears the World Champion's stripes on his jersey since he won the event last year in Leogang. He's struggled to reach the top step again, but he did finish in third-place last time around in Les Gets.
Koretzky won the opening round in Albstadt, proving that he can best Schurter in a full-gas drag race to the finish.
One racer who has been creeping up the results sheet is Anton Cooper. He's been in the front group and looked strong during hole-shot sprints. The Kiwi missed out on the 2016 Games in Rio, so he'll be looking to prove to the world what he can accomplish.
We haven't had a status check on Henrique Avancini in a while since he has been focusing on training rather than racing. The Brazilian won a World Cup in 2020 and has experience racing in the Olympics in 2016.
Schurter's last chance
The defending Olympic Champion has been slightly struggling this season. In past years, he has dominated, consistently winning races whether it's an XCO World Cup or a marathon stage race like the Absa Cape Epic.
Although he hasn't won much this year, the Swissman hasn't done terribly either. He came in second-place in Albstadt and has finished regularly in the top-10. At 35-years-old, this is the last Olympics that he can realistically win.
We do know however that the Olympics serve as rocket-fuel grade motivation for Schurter, who has gotten first, second and third in past editions of the Games. No matter the results, Schurter has already left a massive legacy in the sport.
Simply making it to the Olympics is a massive career achievement, so these are fewer underdogs and athletes we've heard less often from this season.
Milan Vader of the Netherlands is one such rider. He's been floating around the top-20 this season, with a best World Cup finish of 11th. Last year, he placed second at a World Cup.
Alan Hatherly has been getting faster as the season goes on. The South African raced to a 26th place in 2016, and at the last World Cup in Les Gets he placed fourth.
The sole representative for the United States will be Christopher Blevins. He was second-place behind Pidcock at U23 Worlds last year, and his best result in the elite field this year has been 13th. He grew up in Durango, Colorado, a town with a long legacy of Olympic mountain bikers such as Todd Wells.
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How the race will unfold
Unlike at World Cups, where over 100 riders are on the start grid, the Olympics will only have only 38. Start position is critical at the World Cup races, and if a rider is in the back of the pack, it's extremely difficult to make up places. The smaller field in Tokyo means that an underdog rider could come away with an outstanding result.
In our course preview, we discussed how the start will be critical. Even though the field is smaller, the first selection of the race could happen within a minute of the gun going off. A short, steep climb gives way into a rock garden featuring two lines. This could create a bottleneck that riders want to be in front of.
The course is technically difficult, and the abundance of rock gardens could cause some riders to have crashes and mechanical issues. While those incidents are a setback for those riders, they also create drama and a chance for others to make up positions.
So far, none of the World Cup races have come down to a true sprint finish. Victors have been able to get away and cross the line solo. This could be the case in Tokyo, but it will be difficult. Every attack will be followed by extremely motivated riders, so the race could come down to a bike throw.
The race will take place at 3 pm local time on Monday, July 26. The Games will be broadcast by NBC in the United States, BBC in the UK, CBC in Canada, and Eurosport in Europe.