August 27, 2004 – To nobody’s surprise, the seemingly unstoppable Gunn-Rita Dahle (NOR) rode away with an Olympic gold medal today in the women’s cross country mountain bike race on Mt. Parnitha 59 seconds ahead of silver medalist, Marie-Helene Premont (CAN). World Champion, Sabine Spitz (GER) closed out the podium positions with a bronze medal performance.
Mary McConneloug (Fairfax, Calif.) got off to a slow start but rode a consistent and conservative pace to eventually place ninth, 9:21 behind Dahle.
On another sweltering day in Athens, 30 of the best mountain bikers in the world lined up to cover five laps of a six kilometer circuit plus a short start loop for a total of 31.3km. Each lap featured two significant climbs, each roughly ascending 100 meters contributing to a total of nearly 1400 meters.
McConneloug, ranked second in the world, received a favorable start position in the front row but got off to a self-described disappointing start that almost immediately dropped her to tenth place after the short start loop. After just a couple of kilometers, the race had already begun to take shape as Alison Sydor (CAN), Dahle and Premont opened up a slight gap on the remainder of the field. At the end of the first lap, 21 minutes later, Dahle had an advantage of 31 seconds over Premont as Sydor had already lost over a minute to the leader. McConneloug came through in 15th position, 2:40 back.
Dahle, who won the last 10 World Cup events she has competed in, was the odds-on favorite for the Olympic title and despite a minor crash and mechanical difficulty that cost her about 40 seconds today, she continued to put time into the rest of the bunch. Behind, McConneloug managed to settle into a steady pace and began moving up the ranks, finishing the second lap in 11th position almost five minutes behind Dahle.
At the end of lap three, McConneloug had cracked the top-10 after passing Russia’s Irina Kalentieva but her medal hopes were still over four minutes away as Sydor barely held onto third place.
As the race continued, the medal positions looked to be solidified except for the bronze. On the fourth lap, Spitz overtook three-time World Champion Sydor and moved into third place. Ahead, Dahle clearly was the strongest as her lead hovered around a minute to Premont.
Throughout the final lap, the medal positions went unchanged as Dahle sailed across the line, Norwegian flag in hand, to become the first woman other than Italy’s Paolo Pezzo to claim a women’s Olympic mountain bike title. Dahle finished 59 seconds ahead of Premont with a time of 1:56:51. Spitz capped off her Olympic quest with the bronze 2:30 back.
On the final lap, McConneloug managed to move up to ninth after passing Jimena Florit (ARG) and Junior World Champion, Lisa Mathison (AUS).
“I messed up a little bit on the start,” explained McConneloug following her Olympic debut. “I knew who the people in front of me were, so I didn’t panic after the start loop knowing that I could slowly reel them in as the race went on. I just tried to focus on being smooth, having a high cadence and riding a conservative race. I wanted to be in the top-10, so I’m pretty happy.”