Olympics preview: Women's mountain bike race

Radically changed course alters outcome

A radically changed Olympic mountain bike course with freshly-added banking, drops and rocks is set to test the technical skills of the best women mountain bikers in the world this Friday.

Spaniard Margarita Fullana, who has returned to form in timely fashion by winning the world title in June, leads a pack of hungry European, Scandinavian and North American riders who hope to show the ambitious Chinese a thing or two.

The Chinese, led by 2007 under-23 world champion Liu Ying, were said to have been delighted with the Olympic mountain bike course upon its conception last year.

But after getting a distinct thumbs-down from some of the more experienced professional field, the 4.5km loop that will be raced for just under two hours underwent a radical change.

In came some big rocks, some steep drops were added. In brief, a more technically explosive course on which there is no room for rest was created.

"It's a tough course," said Norway's Gunn-Rita Dahle, the reigning champion who followed her gold in Athens with three consecutive world titles to add to her maiden world crown in 2002. "There are a few drops where you have to ride on them. Should be very difficult."

Dahle said she is only "dreaming" of successfully defending her Olympic crown, having struggled recently with health problems. Her compatriot Lene Byberg said the course itself may not be the biggest problem for the 30-strong field.

"The course isn't the problem, but the heat might be," said Byberg, who after a "strong season" is hoping for a medal. "The course suits me and I'm excited. I don't mind the changes in the course, I'm happy with it this way. I had a very good season and I'm hoping for a medal."

Liu is likely to be China's best chance of a medal, and she will find out whether her close affiliation with the course pays dividends. The Chinese team have been practically living on the course for the past while.

However even that single-minded approach can come undone when it comes to race day, when a prestigious gold medal - the fourth since mountain biking's introduction at Atlanta - is on the line.

At just 45kg, Russia's Irina Kalentieva saddles up as the lightest rider from the entire mountain bike peloton this year. But in racing terms she is no lightweight.

A 2007 world champion in Fort William, Scotland, Kalentieva is among the sport's most consistent performers and recently claimed bronze behind Fullana at the world championships in Italy.

Canadian Marie-Helene Premont, German Sabine Spitz and Maja Wloszczowska of Poland will also hope to be in the mix, as should Switzerland's Nathalie Jessica Schneitter.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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