Olympic titles for BMX Racing will be awarded for the fourth time next week, at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo (Japan), continuing this cycling discipline’s Olympic story that began 13 years ago in the Chinese capital of Beijing.
Anne-Caroline Chausson from France was the first BMX-er to win Olympic gold back in 2008 when she put 35.976s on the Beijing clock. Many remember the favourite Shanaze Reade crashing on the last turn as she made a move for the lead, meaning the Briton had to wait another four years to try to realise her Olympic dream “at home” in London.
Latvian Maris Strombergs started the 2008 race in China with the number 1 on his plate and became a hero in his country by taking home the first men’s BMX Olympic gold. It's easy to fast forward four years to London 2012, skipping the Olympic qualifying process, but in reality the four year cycle is stressful for the athletes. Yet Strombergs once again qualified for the Games, once again made the finals and once again won gold. This time Mariana Pajón (COL) claimed victory in the women’s race on a track that was slightly longer than in China. Mariana's time in the finals in London was 37.706s. Finishing in 6th place, Shanaze Reade’s Olympic dream did not come true.
A new level in Rio
Excitement was fever pitch in Rio for BMX Racing’s third appearance on the Olympic stage: the discipline as a whole, the training, and the competition just to qualify had reached an unprecedented level. Once again, the grandstands were packed and the world was watching when the gate dropped… and Pajón did it again, making herself a Colombian celebrity in the process. Her lap time in Rio: 34.093s. Mariana has qualified for her third Olympic Games in Tokyo and could possibly make it three in a row.
In his second Olympic Games Connor Fields finally gave the American fans what they were after, bringing home the Olympic BMX gold to the USA.
Tokyo 2020: the men’s contenders
Some athletes who intended to finish their career in 2020 chose to continue another year to be able to compete in the postponed Olympic Games, which will see the participation of 24 men and 24 women.
For the men’s competition, France and the Netherlands both send three of their best BMX racers. Sylvain André, Romain Mahieu and Joris Daudet are all in good shape, so France already has half of the gate filled up with racers that make for an ominous qualifying race.
With former (2015) Elite UCI BMX World Champion Niek Kimmann, who has been training at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle (Switzerland) this year, and current UCI World Champion Twan van Gendt, the Netherlands will also bring medal contenders. Van Gendt had a replica Tokyo track first straight built, including an 8-metre hill and starting gate. Not only could he practice the first straight daily, the Dutchman also experimented with gears on his BMX bike and has decided to bring it to Japan. Will it be a game changer? Multiple gears or not, it will be hard to beat Connor Fields (USA). The American puts the hammer down when he needs to and with two Olympic finals in his pocket, experience could become a deciding factor.
But BMX is BMX and lots can happen. It would be impossible to ignore Swiss rider David Graf who recently won a UCI BMX World Cup in Verona and has announced his retirement for this year. It's his last chance and obviously he wants to go out with a bang.
It could be that Great Britain's Kye Whyte is in the form of his life and proves unbeatable. Nobody should rule out Carlos Ramirez (COL) who has shown he can come from behind, or Exequiel Torres (ARG), crowned Junior UCI BMX World Champion in 2015.
Tokyo 2020: the women’s race
While it may seem unfair to select one favourite for the women’s class there is a lot of focus on Alise Willoughby’s chances of taking the gold home to the USA. Where she has previously been prone to making mistakes – even when leading important races – she has matured and learnt from it. The legs, the arms, the head, are in the best shape they've ever been.
But there are other participants reading this and thinking, ‘What about me?’ Clearly one of the other leading names is Laura Smulders (NED). But there is also Felicia Stancil (USA) who has beaten Willoughby on multiple occasions, so why shouldn’t that feat be repeated at the Olympic Games finals?
Can Saya Sakakibara (AUS) ride the race of her life? Is 2021 UEC European Champion and UCI World Cycling Centre trainee Zoë Claessens (SUI) ready for a medal at her young age? Or perhaps Pajón is set to collect her third Olympic medal in Tokyo? With other top athletes including Axelle Etienne (FRA), Natalia Afremova (RCF) and Bethany Shriever (GBR) there is certainly strong competition for the top 8 or better still, an Olympic medal.
All will be revealed on 29-30 July at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.