August 21, 2016 (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) – Léandre Bouchard was the top Canadian in 27th in the men’s MTB XCO race, 34.5km on Sunday but the day belonged to Nino Schurter of Switzerland who finally claimed Olympic gold on the last day of the Rio Games.
Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic), the defending champ, settled for silver while Carlos Coloma Nicolas of Spain survived a battle with France’s Maxime Marotte to claim the bronze. Raphaël Gagné, Canada’s second rider, finished 40th. Schurter now has a complete set of Olympic medals; gold in Rio, silver in London (2012) and bronze in Beijing (2008).
Heavy rain overnight soaked the course and, while it did not rain during the race, the track was muddy and slippery on some climbs, and treacherous in the rock gardens. Both Bouchard and Gagné had good starts, exiting the start loop for the first of seven laps positioned in the mid-20s.
At the end of the start loop a group of seven riders took the lead, including the three eventual medalists along with Marco Fontana (Italy), Victor Koretzky (France), Shlomi Haimy (Israel) and Peter Sagan (Slovakia). Road world champion Sagan caused a stir earlier in the year, when he announced he would compete in mountain bike race at the Olympics rather than road.
Gagné struggled with the slippery conditions and dropped back, while Bouchard maintained his positioning until the second lap, when a Russian rider stopped abruptly in front of him in the feed zone, causing the Canadian to crash. He dropped to the mid-30s, but gradually moved up in the final two laps from 32nd to his final position of 27th.
Gagne came in with solid expectations but fell short. “It was definitely a hard race and I am disappointed with my result,” admitted Gagné. “My goal was top-20, so I’m disappointed. I was too far back for the first technical climb and got caught in traffic. Then I had problems getting into a good rhythm. It was pretty slippery and I maybe didn’t have the best tire on the back, but it was the same for everyone around me; everyone was off their bike to run up the climb.”
The lead group finished the first lap together, but the eventual final selection began on the second lap. Haimy was dropped and Koretzky, Fontana and Sagan all suffered punctures, although Fontana and Sagan had already been gapped by the leaders. Coloma was dropped by Schurter and Kulhavy on the fourth lap, and battled for the rest of the race against Marotte for the bronze medal.
At the front, the two leaders worked together until the sixth and penultimate lap, when Schurter attacked on a climb and Kulhavy could not respond. The reigning world champion entered the final lap with a 33-second lead and extended that to 50 seconds by the finish line. Kulhavy finished alone in second, while Coloma managed to hold off Marotte by ten seconds at the finish.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Schurter. “I cannot believe it. I have been working four years for this gold, and I’m so happy that everything went well. I felt very good and strong throughout the entire race. Everything went to plan and in the end I was able to ride alone to the finish line. If I look back, then I needed that silver in London to get strong for here. For me it is the perfect story; I have bronze in Beijing, silver in London and now gold in Rio.”
“For me it was a very hard race and I was at my maximum effort,” said Kulhavy. “After my [hand and wrist] injury this season, I am happy to have silver. The course was incredibly tough; the rain made the course very different and slippery on the rocks, and the downhills much more difficult. It was a different race in London , but today it was me and Nino again. I’m happy for both of us because Nino is the strongest rider this year.”
For Bouchard it was a solid debut at the Games. “I am happy just to be here at the Olympics, it’s really amazing, everything is so big and it was like magic. After our team mates Catharine [Pendrel, bronze in women’s mountain bike] and Emily [Batty, fourth] did so well it helped my preparation. It was inspiring to see them, and I know that at my age I can still progress. This was a good experience for future Olympics.”
Canada concluded the Rio Games with two bronze medals in cycling, and 22 medals total, to finish 10th overall in the medal standings. These are Canada’s first Olympic cycling medals since the Athens in 2004 when Lori-Ann Muenzer claimed Canada’s first Olympic gold medal with her victory on the track and Marie-Helene Premont won MTB silver.
Prior to the Games in Athens Canada’s Alison Sydor won MTB silver at the Olympics in Atlanta back in 1996 where Canada took home a record five medals with Clara Hughes winning two bronze (ITT and RR), Brian Walton taking silver (Track) and Curt Harnett also winning bronze (Track).