‘Down but not out’. This is probably the best way to describe Adrien Niyonshuti (Team MTN Qhubeka)’s experience last weekend (30-31 August) when he raced against some of the world’s best cross-country riders on the course that had been designed for next year’s London Olympic Games.
Julien Absalon from France, winner of the gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens as well as at the 2008 Games in Beijing, was a rider on a mission.
Absalon just ripped into the field and it became a matter of how many riders he would catch out on the 80% rule.
Adrien was stopped on the 5th lap when he was in the 35th position.
According to Paul Cordes, who acted as Niyonshuti’s manager in London, Niyonshuti had the time of his life.
“Each rider was introduced to the crowd individually and brought up to the line. When the ‘15 seconds to go’ call was given, the tension was palpable. Being a racer myself, it felt as if I was on that line with Adrien. When the gun went off the crowd erupted into cheers.
“The pace of the start loop was frantic. The front contenders were testing each other while heading towards the first climb.
“No matter how hard you prepare yourself for a race or how good your equipment is, on the day of the race you need a bit of good luck as well to see you through. Unfortunately Adrien found himself behind some riders who bobbled and spun out on the first climb, enabling the other side of the pack to slide past them.
“This put him off, but he was quickly back into the fight and powering up all the climbs! There was so much support for Adrien among the spectators and it brought chills to me when people encouraged him by name. They even cheered me, being his support team. It was quite humbling.
“From the feed zone I could see the action in four different places around the course. Adrien’s lap times were consistent and he was slowly reeling in riders on the climbs and holding his own on the tricky downhill sections.
“I am sure that if he plans his race well, Adrien’s dream for the Olympics, namely that he does not merely want to participate but to finish as well, will become a reality.”
According to Cordes the Olympic cross-country course is fantastic.
“It offers a little bit of everything and will definitely favour the best all-round athletes.
“About 95% of the course is man-made, which means that they had to plan everything very carefully, down to where every rock has been laid.
“’The longest climb was just under 2 minutes. Most of the climbs are short power climbs, each with its own characteristics.
“There are also some little technical drops and downhills, each with several line options that could be used by the riders, depending on their skill levels.”
Cordes has the following advice for the South African riders who will be competing at the Games.
“You need to be technically efficient and have the ability to race at high speed through the tricky sections, because it determines your speed on the following climb.
“Riders who focus on short power climbs and who are technically very smooth will be successful.
“It will be an amazing course from a spectator’s point of view but, from what I have heard, the tickets are already sold out, all 2000 of them.
“This just confirms how popular cross-country racing is overseas.
It was definitely not a case of all work and no play for Niyonshuti in London. He admits that he was overwhelmed by London.
“A definite highlight for me was to go on bus tours to see all the old buildings and famous sites in and around the city.
“I now have a better idea of what the Olympics will be about.”