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Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Kulhavy won gold in the men’s Olympic mountain bike cross-country race in a thrilling sprint finish from Switzerland’s Nino Schurter with Marco Aurelio Fontana taking bronze.
Unfortunately for Great Britain the race was overshadowed by a terrible injury to Liam Killeen, whose race ended in an appalling crash on Deane’s Drop on lap two of the race. He was taken to hospital for surgery with an open fracture dislocation of his left ankle.
Killeen was gridded on row four as the one and a half hour race got underway, with Nino Schurter (Switzerland) getting the holeshot, leading his countryman Florian Vogel through the start loop. The pair was soon joined by Manuel Fumic (Germany) who moved into second place behind Schurter, pushing Vogel into third third. Killeen, renowned for his steady starts, was in 28th position through first check.
However 2011 world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy was soon up to third position, pushing Vogel down into fourth, the Swiss rider quickly fading after a lightning start. By the end of the first lap, Italy’s Marco Aurelio Fontana has moved to the fore and the trio who would go on to dominate the medal scrap had formed: Nino Schurter of Switzerland, Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Fontana of Italy. At the start of lap two Killeen was 58 seconds down on the leaders and beginning to make his moves through the field, when, on Deane’s Drop, disaster struck for the British National Champion and three time Olympian.
Killeen fell heavily on the rocky technical descent, one of many technical features on the 5km Hadleigh course, built from 500 tonnes of Derbyshire stone that had been shipped into the Essex venue. Killeen lay at the side of the trail and it quickly became clear that the Malvern based rider’s Olympic dream was over, as he received urgent medical attention at the trailside.
A few minutes later, race commentary announced that Killeen was officially out of the race and word came through from Great Britain team management that the rider had suffered an open fracture and dislocation of the left ankle, requiring orthopaedic surgery.
Killeen, joined by Great Britain’s Olympic Mountain Bike Manager Phil Dixon, was taken to hospital for immediate treatment.
Shortly after and with the race still in progress, Matt Parker, Head of Marginal Gains at British Cycling spoke to the BBC: “Liam’s had a nasty break to the ankle unfortunately, he was pushing hard to get into the race. He really wanted to give the home crowd something to cheer. He was coming from the back and moving very quickly and on one of the rock features he has gone down hard.
“The last thing he said to us before going out today was ‘I want this crowd roaring for me’, and he was so determined to have a good race with the crowd cheering him on so he’s devastated he’s not managed to make it through an extra few laps.”
Back at the head of the race and unaware of the drama at trailside, Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana began to pull away from the field, with Spain’s Jose Antonio Hermida trying to get on terms. Meanwhile Olympic champion Julien Absalon was down in 26th place and soon bowed out of the race, his Olympic challenge, like Killeen’s, sadly over on the second lap.
Coming toward the end of lap two Burry Stander (South Africa) was on a charge and joined Hermida. The two began to work together and by the middle of lap three of seven had caught Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana to make an elite quintet at the head of the race.
After a brief period of comparative recovery, Stander, who’d been consistent all year in the World Cup rounds, attacked the group but Schurter led the resistance and soon Stander was caught, dropped and blowing hard to get back on terms. The South African recovered and an uneasy stalemate began between the five riders who, by the start of lap five, were 20 seconds ahead of Stephane Tempier (France) and Alexander Gehbauer (Germany).
After an hour of racing Kulhavy, who had been biding his time in the group, attacked hard probing for weaknesses and the handlebar moustached Spaniard Hermida, silver medallist in 2004, was momentarily dropped but somehow struggled back on.
The penultimate lap loomed and finally the pace of Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana proved too much for Stander and Hermida, who’d expended a massive amount of effort in the earlier chase. Marco Aurelio Fontana, who has been quiet so far, chose this moment to have a dig and see what Kulhavy and Schurter had left in the tank. However, the Italian national champion was unable to dislodge the ultra smooth Schurter, who had excelled throughout the 2012 World Cup season, and the rangy Czech Kulhavy who had clearly peaked for Hadleigh.
The bell lap came and the three leaders were still inseparable; Stander and Hermida were 13 seconds behind, benefitting from some poker playing up ahead as Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana decided how the final denouement would play out.
Fontana then made another move with half a lap to go but didn’t get much of a gap; Schurter sprinting to get back on and Kulhavy slowly reeling them back in on the switchback climb of Snake Hill. Fontana had been clearly saving himself for a final lap assault and went again but still couldn’t shake his rivals and soon it was Kulhavy who showed his devastating hand, attacking on The Breathtaker and forcing Schurter onto the back foot.
In the end it was Fontana’s machinery which failed him, his seatpost shearing off on one of the technical sections, resulting in the Italian losing contact with just a few kilometres to go.
Into the final finish loop and Kulhavy and Schurter were neck and neck, the grandstand crowd treated to a sprint finish after 1 ½ hours of thrilling racing. Kulhavy then made the killer move, going up the inside of the Swiss rider at left hander at the top of the final small climb and sprinting through the final few turns to become Olympic champion, with Schurter, who’d ridden a faultless race up to that point, having to settle for silver. Fontana crossed the line 25 seconds later, ‘senza seatpost’ to claim bronze.
Following the race we spoke to Liam's manager Phil Dixon who had accompained the rider to hospital.
“He is having tibia and fibula pinned. He’ll be off the bike for 12-18 weeks. He’s absolutely gutted,” Dixon said.
“He overtook two riders on the descent and came into the wall ride and because he overtook them he was on the right hand side, not the left hand side. He was a bit loose and the bike slid a little bit and his foot came out. He caught the last rock on the exit of the wall ride and he went forwards over the top of the bike and his left foot caught a rock and swung back and it hit the inside of his ankle.
“He put four years of work into being in that bike race today and he managed to hold his start position. It’s the nature of the sport and unfortunately it has happened at the Olympic Games.”
1 Czech Republic KULHAVY Jaroslav 1:29:07
2 Switzerland SCHURTER Nino 1:29:08
3 Italy FONTANA Marco Aurelio 1:29:32
4 Spain HERMIDA RAMOS Jose Antonio 1:29:36
5 South Africa STANDER Burry 1:29:37
6 Spain COLOMA NICOLAS Carlos 1:30:07
7 Germany FUMIC Manuel 1:30:31
8 Canada KABUSH Geoff 1:30:43
9 Austria GEHBAUER Alexander 1:31:16
10 United States of America WELLS Todd 1:31:28
11 France TEMPIER Stephane 1:31:30
12 Czech Republic SKARNITZL Jan 1:31:48
13 Italy KERSCHBAUMER Gerhard 1:32:02
14 Czech Republic CINK Ondrej 1:32:16
15 United States of America SCHULTZ Samuel 1:32:29
16 Poland KONWA Marek 1:32:41
17 Netherlands van HOUTS Rudi 1:32:53
18 Switzerland NAEF Ralph 1:32:58
19 Belgium van HOOVELS Kevin 1:33:01
20 Austria MARKT Karl 1:33:18
21 Australia McCONNELL Daniel 1:33:22
22 Spain MANTECON GUTIERREZ Sergio 1:33:46
23 Portugal ROSA David Joao Serralheiro 1:33:50
24 Brazil VALERIANO Rubens 1:34:23
25 Switzerland VOGEL Florian 1:34:36
26 Argentina SOTO Catriel Andres 1:35:13
27 Japan YAMAMOTO Kohei 1:35:26
28 Colombia PAEZ LEON Hector Leonardo 1:36:02
29 France PERAUD Jean-Christophe 1:37:07
30 Namibia BASSINGTHWAIGHTE Marc 1:37:17
31 Ukraine RYSENKO Sergji 1:37:32
32 Poland BRZOZKA Piotr 1:38:37
33 Greece ILIAS Periklis 1:38:51
34 Germany MILATZ Moritz 1:38:59
35 South Africa BUYS Philip 1:40:11
36 Costa Rica MONTOYA CANTILLO Paolo Cesar 1:41:19
37 Russian Federation PECHENIN Evgeniy 1:41:40
38 Hong Kong, China CHAN Chun Hing 1:41:59
39 Rwanda NIYONSHUTI Adrien 1:42:46
40 Cyprus ATHANASIADIS Marios 1:43:25
41 People's Republic of China TONG Weisong + 1 LAP
42 Guam HORTON Derek + 1 LAP
Belgium NYS Sven DNF
Canada PLAXTON Max DNF
Hungary PARTI Andras DNF
France ABSALON Julien DNF
Great Britain KILLEEN Liam DNF
Germany FORSTEMANN Robert DNS
Netherlands VINGERLING Michael DNS
New Zealand BEWLEY Sam DNS