Just when you think the Olympic Games are winding down, along comes mountain bike racing. The men’s and women’s cross-country events take place on the final weekend of the games and are set to provide a thrilling finale to the Rio Olympics. The short, intense three-mile race circuit and the deeply talented fields make mountain biking a must-watch event. Here’s what to look for and how to tune in for all the mountain bike action from Rio.
The Fast and Furious Course
If you haven’t followed mountain bike racing lately, you may be imagining long courses with riders spread out over miles, grinding away solo. These days, mountain bike races are relatively short and fast — just 90 minutes in length with non-stop action. The climbs are intense, but never long enough for any one rider to run away Tour de France style. The time gaps stay close and even a minor mistake can mean the difference between a medal and mid-pack finish.
Rio's addition of man-made features, such as rock gardens and gap jumps, upped the demands on riders not only to be incredibly fit, but also agile and brilliant bike handlers. In the past, jumps were the purview of downhill racers on long-travel bikes, but these days, cross-country riders navigate drops and gaps, all while racing at all-out, breathe-through-their-eyeballs speeds. It all adds up to suspenseful racing that’s ridiculously fun to watch.
The Rio course at the Deodoro Sports Complex winds up a wide-open hillside. Sandy, off-camber corners lie in wait to derail an inattentive rider’s medal hopes. There’s a man-made rock garden that requires smart line choices. A gap jump and rock drop will keep riders on their toes. Women race six laps, while men do seven.
A Rivalry for the Ages
The men’s event offers one of cycling’s longest-running rivalries. Julien Absalon, 35, has won two Olympic gold medals and five world championship titles. However, the French rider flatted out of the London race and will be looking for late-career revenge. Nino Schurter, meanwhile, has won two silver medals and is hungry for gold. The Swiss racer recently matched Absalon with his own fifth world championship title — Absalon was forced to settle for third.
The Wild Card
The Olympic mountain bike race features one of the sport’s most versatile and exciting riders, Peter Sagan. He’s best known for his results on the road, which include the 2015 world road championship and five sprinter competition titles at Tour de France. The intense effort of a 90-minute cross-country mountain bike race is an entirely different beast from a six-hour Tour de France stage, but Sagan was a junior world champion on the mountain bike. His bike handling is unreal, and there are few riders who can match his all-around talent.
The American Longshot
The U.S. has one rider in the men’s race in Rio, and he’s the kind of rider who could surprise on the day. Howard Grotts, 23, is an up-and-coming talent who won the U.S. national championship in 2015. It’ll be his first Olympic race, but Grotts is no stranger to international competition. He is currently ranked 55th in the world, and the sky’s the limit for the young talent.
The American Medal Contenders
In the women’s race, the U.S. has an excellent shot at the podium in Lea Davison, 33, who finished a career-best second at the world championships in July. She’s also a two-time U.S. national champion. The ebullient Davison brings her best when it matters most. She finished 11th in her Olympic debut in London and is certainly hoping to bring home a medal this time around. Reigning U.S. national champion Chloe Woodruff joins Davison and will ride her first Olympic race in Rio.
The two Americans face a deeply competitive field with young Swiss superstar Jolanda Neff leading the charge. The multi-talented Neff has won several World Cup races on the mountain bike and in a remarkable feat, she finished eighth in the Olympic road race. The women’s field is deep with talent, and current world champion Annika Langvad of Denmark, Canadian former world champion Catharine Pendrel, Polish star Maja Wloszczowska, and German veteran Sabine Spitz all have a shot at gold.
How to Watch
Both the men’s and women’s mountain bike events will have live coverage online. The live stream for the women’s race begins at 11:30 a.m. EDT/8:30 a.m. PDT on Saturday, August 20. The men’s race also runs at 11:30 a.m. EDT/8:30 a.m. PDT, but on Sunday, August 21.
Head to the NBC Olympic site and look for cycling. You will need a valid cable provider to access the live stream. There are few things worse than waking up early for some racing action only to be denied. Test out the live stream ahead of time to ensure you can watch it.