On the 22 and 23 of August, the world’s best mountain bikers will battle it out in the humid environment of the steep, dusty Laoshan course, situated just outside Beijing.
The pollution that hangs in the air could prove the undoing of any or all of the favourites. Team GB scored enough points in the past couple of years to secure two places in the Olympic Games XC competition. Those two places have been filled by UK hopefuls Liam Killeen and Oli Beckingsale.
The road to Beijing for these two hasn’t been easy. Killeen was out for most of 2007, while Beckingsale didn’t enjoy the best of health that season, either. It was looking doubtful whether we’d have any seasoned performers representing GB at the Games.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the outlook is much rosier, boosted by fourth and 10th place ﬁnishes by Liam and Oli respectively at the World Championships in June.
Both are determined to make it onto the Olympic podium. How do they rate their chances, and who will be the rivals to beat?
You might think that someone who’s been competing for nearly 20 years would show signs of slowing down. Not Oli Beckingsale; the 33-year-old is getting faster and faster, ﬁnally breaking into the top10 on the World Cup circuit in 2008.
Being selected to represent GB at the Olympics for a record third time is just a highlight of his incredible year.
He’s taking it all in his stride, “Being an Olympian is a big deal, but doing it three times doesn’t make too much difference to me," he says. The best thing about going to the Olympics is that, ﬁnally, the general public appreciates what I do. They don’t usually understand what I’m talking about when I say I’m a professional bike rider, but when they see me going to the Olympics, suddenly it’s ‘wow, you’re a proper sportsman!'
"The ﬁrst time I got selected was amazing. The second time I went to the Olympics, I rode faster, but not much faster than the ﬁrst time, so it didn’t feel any different. After Athens I didn’t think I’d be going to another Games. I was booted off the GB squad and had to ﬁnd my own way.
"So I put my head down and starting working with the aim of getting selected for the Commonwealth Games 2006. I got that and rode really well, taking silver, and it was only then that I turned my thoughts towards possible selection for the Olympics again.
"However, in 2007, I was hoping to build on my success at the Commonwealth Games, but I wasn’t ﬁring on all cylinders, so ultimately it turned into a survival year for me. This year, everything’s going to plan. I’m where I want to be at the moment, so I hope to ride and do myself justice.
"To be selected again means a chance to prove I can ride faster than I ever have done before. I want to ride in that top 10, I’ve got the legs and I know I have the ability to do that. I want to be part of that race. I don’t want to just ride round and ﬁnish, I want to be in the thick of things. If this is the last race I ever do, I want to make sure I’m proud of what I’ve done. If I can get old and go on club runs and tell people I raced well at the Olympics, I’ll be happy.”
At the Olympics, Oli will be riding his new Giant XTC Advanced frame. It’s a full carbon composite hardtail and, compared with the current model, is much lighter and torsionally stiffer. That means more power transfer, with less weight to drag up the hills.
A bike built up with Oli’s race spec would come in at around £3,500, although some of the components he uses, including the Stan’s No Tubes Race Wheels with 285g rims that build up to 1,300g for a pair of wheels, are special for pro riders.
From the current Giant range, the closest model to Oli’s bike would be the XTC Zero. It’s the current top-spec composite hardtail, which retails at £2,995.
Liam Killeen has been Britain's biggest medal hope for years. He came close in Athens (2004), but a crash on the ﬁrst corner put him just out of reach. He raised his proﬁle once more in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, where he led a British one-two (with Oli), but then hopes were seemingly dashed as a mystery illness in 2007 led many to speculate that Liam’s ‘golden’ days were over.
Now, after a slow start to the 2008 season, Liam's beginning to look like he’s ﬁring on all cylinders once more, proving his critics wrong. His ride at the World Champs in June where he started the race way back in 70th, but fought through to ﬁnish fourth, was a superbly impressive performance.
What’s more, he’s enjoying his racing once again. Come the Olympics, where there’ll only be 50 starters and where the course has huge potential for easy overtaking, Killeen could be a real contender for a medal.
That’s something he doesn’t rule out himself.
“My Olympic gridding is based on my UCI points, and at the moment I’m way down to where I’ve been used to, in terms of UCI rankings," he says. “But if you’ve got it and you’re there in Beijing, well, it’s not such a huge ﬁeld at the Olympics. We’re talking about 50 riders maximum, which is much smaller than a World Cup. Yes, it’s much more competitive, but it’s not going to be so hard to get near the front than at the World Cups, and it goes without saying that getting a better result than Athens would be a bonus.
"It’s hard to say right now what my chances are, but there’ll be a lot of guys there that I’ve beaten before. They’re going well at the moment, and I feel I’m not at my best, but I know that when I get up to 100 per cent I’ll be giving them a good race. To get a medal would be a dream come true.”
Specialized is keeping details of Liam’s Olympic race bike sparse, but we know it’ll be a new Epic with a suspension conﬁguration similar to the bike that Liam’s Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser rode to victory at the World Championships
Before the Olympics, Liam was riding on a fairly stock S-Works Epic frame. “Although on some courses you feel you’d be better off on a hardtail, when you get used to the way the Epic rides, you ﬁnd real advantages with full suspension,” he explains. “It’s surprising how much time you can save, and how much quicker you can push it in certain sections. Beijing is going to be technical so I reckon I’ll be able to push this bike to the limit.”
The exception to the stock rule is that Liam runs two-piece carbon road cranks, which he says are much stiffer and much more expensive than standard cranks.
The closest off the peg model to Liam’s race bike is the £3,999 S-Works Epic.