RIO DE JANEIRO – It took Swiss mountain biker Nino Schurter eight years to climb all the way up the Olympic podium, a slow ascent that was at times frustrating, heartbreaking and infuriating.
He finally reached the top step Sunday.
Schurter pulled away from reigning champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic on the penultimate lap and rode solo to the finish, adding a gold medal to the silver he won at the 2012 London Games and the bronze he captured at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“I worked hard to complete my medal collection,” Schurter said. “My story is now perfect.”
The top two steps of the podium were a reversal of the finish from London, when Kulhavy overtook his biggest rival on the final section of turns at Hadleigh Farm.
Schurter broke down in tears that day, so close to achieving his Olympic dream.
“Now looking back on London,” he said, “I think it had to be silver there. I worked hard to get stronger and better, and I’m really happy and satisfied.”
Schurter and Kulhavy worked together to establish a gap on the rest of the field over the mountain bike course, turned in some places to a quagmire by overnight rain. But the Swiss superstar and reigning world champion was able to up the tempo when it mattered the most.
Schurter covered the seven-lap, 34-kilometer course in 1 hour, 33 minutes, 28 seconds. Kulhavy was 50 seconds back while Carlos Coloma of Spain was another 33 seconds adrift to take bronze.
“This was the most important moment of my career,” Coloma said. “I had perfect preparation. I had self-confidence. And this is a dream come true.”
Five-time world champion Julien Absalon of France, who intends to retire after this season, was eighth. World road race champion Peter Sagan had two flat tires and finished out of contention in 35th. Durango’s Howard Grotts, the lone American in the 49-man field, also had two flat tires and a broken bike seat that sent him back to 38th.
Sagan decided to ride off road in Rio after scouting the climb-heavy road course and realizing it did not suit his strengths. But the decision earlier this year meant he only had time to squeeze in a couple of mountain bike races, leaving him ranked No. 900 in the world.
That also meant he started with the final bib number in the very back of the pack. Just like he did in laying waste to a small race in Wyoming a couple of weeks ago, part of his post-Tour de France training plan, Sagan immediately went to the front of the field.
His power came in handy given the conditions. The rain tapered off an hour before the start left, but it left the winding, technical course in the Deodoro neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro a soggy mess. Riders had to dismount and push their bikes over a few particularly slick climbs, slipping and sliding as if they were on ice.
Some riders lamented they did not adjust their setup to the conditions.
“My bike was the same as (Saturday),” Kulhavy said, “but maybe it was a little bit of a mistake because I had a very fast tire in the rear and I had a problem with the muddy hills.”
Sagan’s chances ultimately were ruined when his front tire went flat at the start of the second lap. He began working his way back through the field again only for his back tire to go flat.
Hardly the only rider to puncture on the stone-strewn course, Sagan finished in 35th place.
The race began to string out by the third of seven laps. Schurter and Kulhavy were never more than a few feet apart, the reigning Olympic champ and world champ clearly the strongest riders in the field. Coloma hung with them for a while before slowly losing ground.
Absalon was two minutes down by the sixth lap, his chances of another gold medal gone.
It was about that point that Schurter finally shook Kulhavy from his rear wheel, dropping the Czech champion with some daring riding on the tricky descents. He was 44 seconds clear at the start of the final lap, all alone on a course jammed with fans.
By the final straightaway, Schurter was all alone. Eight years of so many close calls had been wiped away in less than two hours, Schurter at last allowed to step to the top of the podium and hear the Swiss national anthem.
“I’m just really happy,” he said. “Really satisfied with my whole medal collection.”