Zen and the art of bicycle crashes.
FEW EVENTS TEST athletes’ skill, daring, and endurance the way that mountain biking does. Over a 2.5-mile offroad course in Izu City, about 75 miles south of Tokyo, some 35 international riders will jockey for position on narrow ribbons of singletrack and doubletrack, weaving around trees, over rocks and bridges, and through bermed dirt turns.
Beginning with a mass start, riders— including Nino Schurter of Switzerland, a legend who’s going for his fourth medal in as many Olympics, and Belgian phenom Mathieu van der Poel—will churn out six to eight laps (final distance is not yet determined) over a track that’s been manicured to look like a Japanese garden—but is anything but Zen. “It’s one of the more technical courses I’ve ever ridden,” says Christopher Blevins, a member of the U.S. team. “It has incredibly steep climbs and rocky descents, and if it rains, which it often does during the summer in Japan, it will be chaos.”
Even if the skies don’t open up, and temps stay below scorching, riders still have to worry if their ultra-light bikes can survive the long ascents, a boulder field, and 8-foot drops. “It’s common that somebody gets a flat, especially on a course like the one in Japan,” says Blevins. “You’d almost rather crash than have a mechanical problem, because if you get a flat, that’s probably going to take you out of medal contention.”