This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic), the man who dominated mountain biking in 2011, won gold at the London Olympic Games, beating Nino Schurter of Switzerland into silver at Hadleigh Farm, Essex in a thrilling sprint finish. Marco Aurelio Fontana (Italy) had to settle for bronze after snapping his seat post in the final lap of the men's race. Defending two-time champion, Julien Absalon (France) suffered a puncture and retired from the race.
"It was really hard, because we went full-gas the whole time. I was amazingly strong, I gave everything for this race. I put in all my energy and it's amazing. This race was important this year, nothing else. I won everything, world champs, world cups. Now I am Olympic champion," said Kulhavy.
As expected the race came down to a war of attrition, but it was the opening stages of the race that proved crucial.
Schurter and Florian Vogel (Switzerland) started the strongest, together as usual, whipping through the first bend and taking control on the opening loop. The Swiss tandem quickly had the field strung out, but their control was breached when Manuel Fumic (Germany), another notoriously fast starter, powered into second place behind Schurter.
However, on the first set of switchback climbs, the pressure intensified, and Kulhavy and Fontana moved into the first three with Vogel and then Fumic falling back, the latter crashing out but able to remount.
Schurter, Fontana and Kulhavy quickly established a lead, working well together as the began the first lap. However Absalon, the two-time defending Olympic champion, was already in trouble. Glancing down at his bike, he crossed the line in 27th place.
Jose Antonio Hermida (Spain) led a counter attack from the struggling bunch, the Spaniard sandwiched in between the leading trio and a group containing the rest of the pre-race favourites. At the top of the second climb of Snake Hill, Schurter and his two companions had a lead approaching 10 seconds. By now, Absalon was well out of the medals, struggling 1:19 down on the leaders and shortly after, he would quit the race. He wasn't the only rider forced out. Great Britain's only competitor Liam Killeen crashed out with a broken ankle. Absalon was at least able to pedal back to the start house to explain his poor luck to the waiting French media.
Schurter and Kulhavy swapped turns with Fontana, who was unable or unwilling to help, but at the start of the second lap, the gap had been consolidated with Hermida finding support from former U23 world champion Burry Stander (South Africa).
The chase pair soon made contact and Schurter was immediately aware of the danger, pushing the pace as the five riders started the third lap, with the chasers at 26 seconds.
Recovered from his efforts to bridge across, Stander accelerated through the Rock Garden. Schurter was the first to respond, but Hermida and Fontana were instantly put into difficulty. On the next climb, Schurter assumed control and on the technical terrain, it was Stander who was left struggling. The South African managed to regain contact and as they approached an hour of racing and the start of the fourth lap Stander accelerated again. This time it was Kulhavy who closed the gap, and the Czech rider's efforts slowly turned the screw on Hermida and then Stander, both beginning to show signs of weakness.
Kulhavy in his element
Kulhavy pushed on. Schurter and the plucky Fontana were slightly gapped at the start of the fifth lap. Behind Stander had completely blown, and Hermida, too, although they chased onward, just in case anything happened to the probable medallists up front.
The leading trio reformed on Snake Hill and for the first time in the race, Fontana set the pace. Until now, the Italian had been content to follow the wheels of the two top favorites. As they approached the feed, Schurter moved to the front, shackling Fontana's enthusiasm.
The bell rang for the final lap and a brief truce appeared between the leaders. It allowed Stander and Hermida to reduce the gap to 13 seconds. Fontana tried to put daylight between him and his companions before Snake Hill's final ascent, and the pressure put Kulhavy into the red for the first time in the race. Schurter led the Czech rider onto the Italian's wheel but Fontana wasn't finished, accelerating again before the final technical section.
Into the Rock Garden for the final time, Schurter led with Kulhavy in close quarters as Fontana suffered his mechanical.
On the final climb, Kulhavy attempted to drop Schurter but the Swiss rider was equal to the move. Schurter, who is known for his powerful finishing sprint, pushed his way to the front on the descent, knowing that if he led into the final 100 meters, he would have the best line for the sprint.
Kulhavy took the inside line and closed the door on his Swiss rival, taking the gold medal by less than a bike length. Fontana, able to hold off the chasing Hermida and Stander, took the bronze. Hermida was fourth by one second ahead of Stander in fifth.
"It was a great race. I performed to the maximum. Just at the end, Jaroslav was a bit stronger than me. It is hard to get second, but it was a great day. I have to be happy with silver. It was an awesome feeling to compete here," Schurter said.
Several North Americans put in strong rides, including Geoff Kabush (Canada) as the top finisher in eighth place. Todd Wells was the best American in 10th place.