ATHENS, Greece -- Julien Absalon has quite a year going:
Married on Valentine's Day, a second straight French national
title, and now, Olympic gold.
Absalon, whose focus had been on Athens since failing to make
France's Olympic team four years ago, pulled away in the second
half of the mountain bike race and eased to victory in 2 hours, 15
minutes, 2 seconds.
"My preparation was very tough,'' Absalon said. "I've dreamed
of this moment a hundred times before. Now it's true. It's for
Jose Antonio Hermida of Spain finished second, exactly a minute
behind Absalon. Bart Brentjens of the Netherlands, the world's
top-ranked rider and 1996 Olympic champion, took the bronze.
"In the end, the tank just doesn't stay full,'' Brentjens said.
It was the final cycling event of the Athens Games. Australia,
with 10 medals, dominated the overall standings; Germany, with six
medals, finished second; the United States won three medals, all in
the road time trials on Aug. 18.
Neither American rider in Saturday's field on the Mount Parnitha
course challenged for medals. Todd Wells of Durango, Colo. finished
19th, matching the best-ever Olympic finish by an American men's
mountain biker; Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski placed 21st overall. Both
were making Olympic debuts.
"I'm 26 years old. I can see coming back in four years and
maybe being a legitimate contender,'' Horgan-Kobelski said.
Miguel Martinez, France's 1996 bronze medalist and defending
Olympic champion, dropped out after five laps because of cramps and
dehydration. Absalon, though, made sure his countrymen went home
He spent much of the first half of the race in a tight battle at
the front, with a half-dozen riders separated by a few seconds.
Midway through the fifth lap of the seven-lap spin around the
approximate three-mile course, Absalon took off and no one could
stay with him.
Even Absalon's wife couldn't handle another 90-degree day in the
punishing sunshine; she collapsed as her husband rode past to begin
his final lap. She stayed down in the gravel for several minutes,
while water was applied to her face and a large French flag waved
over her, providing both a breeze and relief from sun.
Soon, the flag waved again -- this time to celebrate Absalon's
Absalon was among the favorites, especially after winning the
Olympic preview event at Mount Parnitha in May. Belgian world
champion Filip Meirhaeghe -- a silver medalist at Sydney -- pulled
out of the field last month after testing positive for EPO, which
increases endurance by pumping more oxygen to red blood cells.
The Olympic race completed a long road for Wells, who quit his
job as a project manager for IBM in 2001 -- abandoning six-figure
earning potential and instead opting to make his living riding in
races where a typical first prize is about $3,000.
"Having the chance to go back after having a job and do what I
love to do all the time, that right there is a victory for me,''
Wells said. "This is just icing on the cake. The Olympics brings
our sport to everybody.''