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Great Britain’s Annie Last recorded an impressive eighth place in the Olympic cross country mountain bike race at Hadleigh Farm, following a blistering start which saw the 21 year old from Derbyshire on terms with eventual winner Julie Bresset of France in the opening stages. Last was the youngest of the top ten finishers – underlining the Podium Programme rider’s meteoric rise in elite women’s mountain biking in the last twelve months.
Last is renowned for her quick starts and benefitted from a great grid position to go into the lead entering the start loop for the first time. The Hadleigh venue looked magnificent and blazing sunshine, combined with Hadleigh’s open amphitheatre setting, made the venue a massive hit with the spectators, who were three or four deep all around the 4.5km loop, which the riders negotiated six times.
Last still led through the technical Deane's Drop section, made from Derbyshire stone, the Bakewell-born rider right at home with Julie Bresset (France) on her tail. In the early stages Last was joined by Bresset and Katrin Leumann (Switzerland), all eager to establish a good position in early on.
Throughout the first lap Bresset and Last continued to trade places while behind, Irina Kalentieva (Russian Federation), Sabine Spitz (Germany) and Katrin Leumann led a long snaking line of a dozen riders up the switchback climb.
On the following sandy climb, Bresset struggled, spun her back wheel and clipped the barrier, in hindsight possibly the only mistake the 23 year old Frenchwoman made in the whole race. Last avoided her and pushed on, opening a gap of a few bike lengths, much to the appreciation of the crowd.
Conspicuous by her absence in the opening throes, world champion and world cup winner Catherine Pendrel (Canada) had recovered from a bad start and was soon at the head of the race with Last and Bresset, until the Canadian got hung up on one of the mini rock gardens which punctuated the Hadleigh ascents, letting Last and Bresset go clear again, meaning that Pendrel had to once more sprint back on; an effort she would pay for later in the race.
So at the end of lap one is was Bresset leading with Last and Pendrel in tow, while behind reigning Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (Germany), at 40 years old, was making her presence felt for the first time in fourth position.
Spitz continued to press on as the group of four yo-yoed off the front of the main field, the experienced German moving up to second as Annie Last began to pay for her fast start and slipped to fourth place behind Pendrel.
Behind the leading four Russia’s Irina Kalentieva led the pack in its attempt to rein in the escapees but it was clear that Bresset was on stellar form and kept stretching the elastic to breaking point.
Onto lap three and the elastic was in tatters, Bresset had begun to gap Spitz and Pendrel, while Georgia Gould of the USA had put down a huge burst of power to move into fourth position, knocking Annie Last down to fifth place, with Russian Kalentieva breathing down the Briton’s neck.
Gould continued her charge and closed up on Spitz and the podium trio began to crystallize, with Bresset, Spitz and Gould out front and a ten second gap to the chasing triumvirate of Pendrel, Last and Kalentieva.
Bresset crossed the line to start lap four, still setting a gut wrenching 19kmh pace at the front and the gap between the podium protagonists and the chasing threesome started to extend. Then Deane’s Drop claimed one of many crash victims, Sabine Spitz coming to grief, holding up Gould behind and giving Julie Bresset another ten seconds of advantage and with hindsight, a comfortable run in to the finish.
As Spitz and Gould chased back on, another veteran of the sport, Norway’s Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa was walking back to the pits with a rear wheel puncture, the race over for the cross country legend, who was on great form coming into Hadleigh.
It was no such bad luck for Bresset who continued to eat up the kilometres with apparent ease, crossing the line to start lap five with a 33 second lead. Behind Last was still looking strong in fifth place, recovered from her starting effort and holding station three places ahead of Pendrel, who’d blown up spectacularly mid race and was back in eighth.
However, Annie’s top five placing was quickly under threat as Swiss rider Esther Suss bumped the Briton down to sixth on lap five. Up ahead and with the last lap looming, Bresset was now over 40 seconds ahead and looking good for gold while behind her the bare-knuckle scrap for silver between Spitz and Gould looked like it would go the whole twelve rounds.
With just half a lap to go Bresset was a minute ahead while Spitz looked to be the stronger of the other medal contenders, frequently gapping Gould on the final few ascents. Meanwhile, Annie Last had to relinquish another place, as Sweden’s Alexandra Engren emptied the tank and stormed through into sixth. Annie was down to eighth, just ahead of Pendrel; a top ten finish and the honour of placing higher than the 2011 world champion was in Annie’s sights.
But ahead, the Olympic champion was about the be crowned; Julie Bresset had been smiling for the entire last lap and crossed the line blowing kisses to the massive crowds, pausing to pick up the Tricolore before crossing the line to take gold, the youngest ever Olympic mountain bike champion. Spitz and Gould grimaced behind, the USA rider not giving in to the powerful and experienced German. However in the final few ducks and dives of the Hadleigh course, Spitz had managed to gap her American rival to take a stunning silver, with bronze an excellent result for the young American rider.
However, the biggest cheers came when Annie Last crossed the line, her face a picture of grim determination and effort, to finish eighth; a top ten finish at the Olympic Games for the 21 year old, the first Great Britain woman to finish an Olympic mountain bike race since Caroline Alexander, way back in Sydney 2000.
1 France BRESSET Julie 1:30:52
2 Germany SPITZ Sabine 1:31:54
3 United States of America GOULD Georgia 1:32:00
4 Russian Federation KALENTIEVA Irina 1:32:33
5 Switzerland SUSS Esther 1:32:46
6 Sweden ENGEN Alexandra 1:33:08
7 Poland DAWIDOWICZ Aleksandra 1:33:20
8 Great Britain LAST Annie 1:33:47
9 Canada PENDREL Catharine 1:34:28
10 Slovenia ZAKELJ Tanja 1:34:41
11 United States of America DAVISON Lea 1:35:14
12 People's Republic of China SHI Qinglan 1:35:28
13 Ukraine BELOMOYNA Yana 1:35:46
14 Czech Republic NASH Katerina 1:36:22
15 Austria OSL Elisabeth 1:36:47
16 Germany MORATH Adelheid 1:37:17
17 Italy LECHNER Eva 1:37:36
18 New Zealand HANLEN Karen 1:37:54
19 Switzerland LEUMANN Katrin 1:38:23
20 Japan KATAYAMA Rie 1:38:26
21 Slovakia STEVKOVA Janka 1:39:05
22 Poland GORYCKA Paula 1:39:18
23 Slovenia KLEMENCIC Blaza 1:39:42
24 Canada BATTY Emily 1:40:37
25 Australia HENDERSON Rebecca 1:41:35
26 France FERRAND PREVOT Pauline 1:42:21
27 Hungary BENKO Barbara 1:43:24
28 South Africa NEETHLING Candice 1:45:03
Norway DAHLE FLESJAA Gunn-Rita DNF
Colombia ABRIL RESTREPO Laura Valentina DNF