On Sunday morning in Rio de Janeiro, the final day of the 2016 Olympic Games, one of the greatest rivalries in the history of professional cycling will come to an end on the sport’s biggest stage.
The men’s Olympic cross-country mountain-bike race will see France’s Julien Absalon, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, pitted against Nino Schurter of Switzerland, world champion four of the last five years.
Absalon, 36, and Schurter, 30, are the Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic of cycling — the greatest of all time and the greatest of his generation, separated by six years with intersecting career arcs that have provided one of the most compelling rivalries in all of cycling.
In addition to his 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medals, Absalon (BMC Racing) has won the world championship five times (2004-2007, and 2014) and the UCI World Cup overall six times (2003, 2006-2009, and 2014).
Schurter (Scott-Odlo) has also won the world championship five times (2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016), and the UCI World Cup overall four times (2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015). He also has won two Olympic medals — bronze in 2008, at age 22, and silver in 2012, when he should have won gold.
Between them, Absalon and Schurter have held the title of world champion for 10 of the last 13 years. They’ve provided mountain-bike fans with countless great battles, oftentimes coming to the line together, or separated only by a handful of seconds. It’s a rivalry that has its own Facebook page. And like Federer and Djokovic, who are also separated in age by six years, what has made the rivalry between Absalon and Schurter so compelling is each rider’s ability to win on any given day.
At 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds (1.80m, 68kg), Absalon is long and lean, an experienced veteran who keeps his cool and excels on steep, technical climbs. True to his French heritage, Absalon is assured and aloof, to the point of being a bit enigmatic. Name a top cross-country racer of the past 12 years — Meirhaeghe, Hermida, Sauser, Hesjedal, Martinez, Fontana, Stander, Peraud, Killeen — and Absalon has beaten him. And while it’s true that Absalon’s athletic peak was between 2004 and 2008, there’s no disputing his 2014 world title, his consecutive European Championship titles in 2015 and 2016, and his current UCI number-one ranking.
Much more compact, at 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds (1.72m, 68kg), Schurter is powerful and explosive, superior on descents, and a stronger sprinter. True to his Swiss heritage, Schurter is exact and precise. It’s not hyperbole to say that Schurter is perhaps the most all-around skilled cross-country racer the world has ever seen. On his best day, he has no equal.
In a VeloNews interview, Schurter characterized their strengths and weaknesses. “We are very even overall,” Schurter said. “In the past I had an advantage on technical, demanding courses or sections, but Julien has improved a lot lately. I’m faster out of the start gate, which sometimes leaves it up to me to control the first part of the race. Julien, on the other hand, is extremely strong on longer climbs and can ride at a very high pace for a long time.”
If the 2008 Olympic race in Beijing was a successful day for both men — it was that performance that led Absalon to peg Schurter as his successor — the 2012 Olympics didn’t end well for either rider. Absalon punctured early at Hadleigh Farms, outside of London, and abandoned. Schurter rode a perfect race, only to be passed by Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) on the inside of the penultimate chicane in the final 200 meters. The Swiss rider was despondent afterward, in tears.
At the 2016 world championship, held in July in Nové Mesto, Czech Republic — earlier than usual, due to the timing of the Olympics — Schurter was in a league of his own, riding a tactically perfect race to solo to victory ahead of Kulhavy, with Absalon in third, 30 seconds back.
Over the past 12 months, it’s not been often that Absalon has beaten Schurter. Absalon won the World Cup race in La Bresse, France, on May 29 with Schurter, who suffered two flat tires, finishing in fourth. A week earlier, in Albstadt, Germany, the two rode away from the field, with Schurter winning the sprint at the line.
Absalon leads the 2016 World Cup series with one event remaining; Schurter skipped the fifth round, at Mont-Sainte-Anne, to prepare for the Olympics. Absalon won in Mont-Sainte-Anne, his sixth career victory on the difficult Canadian course, and his 32nd career World Cup victory — a record that would seem unbeatable, if not for Schurter’s age and impeccable skill set.
Sunday’s Olympic XC race, held in the Deodoro district of Rio’s West Zone, isn’t just the biggest race on the cross-country calendar, it’s also Absalon’s last big objective. He’ll retire after the season-ending World Cup event in Vallnord, Andorra, on September 4.
“Rio is my last big goal,” Absalon announced last fall. “I will stop my career after this.”
Of course there are others who will fight for victory, most notably Kulhavy, the defending Olympic champion and 2011 world champion who came closest to Schurter at the world championship last month.
In fact, Absalon isn’t the only French podium threat — Maxime Marotte, 30, and Victor Koretzky, 22, can both ride at the front on their best day.
What’s most likely, however, is that Schurter will, finally, capture that elusive gold medal to complete his Olympic collection and confirm his status as the greatest of his era. Which riders can stay with him, and if Absalon will be among them, is the question that will be answered Sunday morning.
The man-made 5km circuit incorporates many of the design features that made the London course both spectator and television-friendly, and includes one longer climb plus a series short, steep power climbs. Multiple rock gardens and drops will keep riders on their toes. Both women and men will do a start loop, and it is expected women will do six laps, and the men will do seven, for about 90 minutes, or around 40km in total.
In October, Schurter won the test event held at the Deodoro Olympic Park, ahead of Marotte and Italy’s Andrea Tiberi. Absalon finished just off the podium that day, in fourth place.
“It’s a really cool course, and really fun to ride,” Schurter said last fall. “The challenge will be the heat. For us from Europe, it’s difficult to handle the hot conditions.”
Since then, Schurter has won three of five World Cup events, as well as the world championship. The forecast for Sunday is cool, with a high of 75°F (24°C) and a very high likelihood of rain.
“I’m in great shape right now,” Schurter said last month. “Up until now everything has gone according to plan towards Rio. The way this season is going has given me great confidence.”
Professional cycling has seen some great rivalries over the past decade, across all disciplines: Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton on the velodrome; Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara across the cobblestones; Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich on the cols of France; and, in what may just be the best rivalry of the next decade, young cyclocross stars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, in the Belgian mud.
But for the past decade, race after race, Absalon and Schurter have delivered the most compelling, evenly matched rivalry the sport can deliver. Cycling fans have been fortunate their careers overlapped, and the 2016 Olympic cross-country race could be the last, best, showdown of these two great champions.
Video: Onboard race footage from Julien Absalon’s bike, shot in October 2015, at the Olympic test event in Deodoro Pentathlon Park.