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The men kicked off Olympic Cross-country racing in Tokyo, with one of the most eclectic and unpredictable fields we’ve ever seen. Ultimately it was the young British rider, Thomas Pidcock, who prevailed (in dominant fashion) on the nail-bitingly technical course.
Who were the favorites?
Swiss XC mainstays Nino Schurter and Mathias Flückiger have spent the season so far fending off the advances of France’s Jordan Sarrou and Victor Koretzky; Brazil’s Henrique Avancini; and the Czech Republic’s Ondřej Cink. Never in recent memory have so many riders proven they can contest the front of the race, which makes for some refreshingly dynamic racing after nearly a decade of Swiss dominance. Still, with a handful of recent wins, Flückiger seemed to be holding his edge, if narrowly, heading into the Olympics.
Pidcock belonged to a different category—after winning the U23 world championships in XC, the 21-year-ol Brit saw breakout success in elite cyclocross last season, and signed with Ineos-Grenadiers world tour team for 2021. Despite suffering a broken collarbone in training, he made a quick recovery in time for the most recent World Cup.
His most immediate rival in the Olympic race was another crossover athlete: defending Cyclocross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel. Both Pidcock and MvdP had made appearances in the 2021 World Cup in preparation for Tokyo, and either could upset the entire field seemingly at will. Despite not being primarily mountain bikers, these two riders were widely considered among the favorites for a win or podium finish in Tokyo.
How it Happened
The pace on the 1km start lap was blistering as riders fought for position going into the course’s first technical features. With start order determined by world ranking, some riders with fewer starts this season (including Pidcock) had a lot of ground to make up, fast. But the Brit made it look easy, surfing from the second-to-last row to around 5th wheel just in time to avoid the race’s first bottlenecks.
The course in Tokyo offered very few opportunities for riders to rest, make up time, or generally collect themselves. With lots of tight, loose turns, steep punchy climbs, and huge rock features, any bobble or foot down could be catastrophic. That’s exactly what we saw in the first bottleneck through the opening rock garden, when a lead group of 10 (including all the favorites) was able to establish a significant gap on the rest of the field.
Brazil’s Avancini took an early lead, marked by France’s Victor Koretzky—but it was short-lived as the course turned more technical. Nino Schurter was the next to take over, displaying the skills that made him an eight-time world champion through the first huge rock garden. Flückiger was right on his wheel, looking comfortable, followed by New Zealand’s Anton Cooper, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tom Pidcock.
It was shaping up to be a battle of the titans when disaster struck for van der Poel on the first large drop—the Dutch superstar came in front-heavy and went over the bars, slamming his seat into his stomach and landing heavily on his back. Pidcock, who was right on his wheel, narrowly avoided the crash, and van der Poel lost over a minute collecting himself. He fought on, grimacing and covered in dirt, for three more laps before abandoning on lap four.
Schurter and Flückiger looked to have control of the race until Pidcock made his move during lap three. With his distinctly quick cadence and fluid technical skills, Pidcock suddenly made everyone else look very tired, easily distancing Schurter and clearly forcing Flückiger to give everything he had to hold his wheel. It’s a testament to the fitness of the Swiss rider that he managed to keep the gap under 10 seconds while Pidcock simply shredded the rest of the field—at one point the commentators even seemed concerned with the pace at which he would be lapping slower riders.
Farther back, the battle for third appeared to crystallize between Schurter, Cooper, and Koretzky. They were joined briefly by a hard-chasing Cink who quickly came to the front of the group, then almost just as quickly suffered a flat, ending his race. Schurter regained command of the group, powering smoothly through the race’s many technical challenges, but he was marked closely by the other two riders. They were joined by Spain’s Valero Serrano and Romania’s Vlad Dascălu in the last lap.
Going into the final lap, Pidcock appeared composed, continuing to stretch his lead to Flückiger until the final meters—and that’s how they finished. The 21-year-old became the first British rider to win a gold medal (or any medal) in the Olympics—and the emotion of the moment was clear as he was embraced on the finish line. Flückiger took the silver (his first Olympic medal) and Serrano made a surprise move in the final meters to take the bronze.