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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Is U.S. on Too Level a Playing Field?

Mountain biking: Foreign racers dominate competition on flat course. American DeMattei wins a bronze.

July 31, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONYERS, Ga. — Young Noah Workman, a 15-year-old mountain biking enthusiast from Hamden, Conn., was settling in under a shady tree to watch his favorite sport make Olympic history Tuesday, when he noticed something was missing.

"There's no mountain," Workman observed.

No, there wasn't. Not a mountain, peak, slope or even an ambitious hill in sight. Merely an equestrian park and a golf course and a bunch of fenced-off bicycle trails stitched across both.

"There should be a mountain," Workman suggested. "That's the whole idea. They're missing an essential part of mountain biking."

So what happened?

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games couldn't have misplaced an entire mountain, could it?

It didn't, it just placed the course for the first-ever Olympic mountain bike competition at Georgia International Horse Park, a 1,100-acre equestrian facility located 30 miles east of Atlanta, where there is a first-rate steeplechase course, scenic horse trails, spacious training rings, a world-class dressage arena and absolutely no mountains.

No matter. Tuesday morning and afternoon, two mountain bike races were held here and six mountain bike Olympic medals were awarded, including a bronze in the women's division to Susan DeMattei.

DeMattei, of Fairfax, Calif., is engaged to the man who helped design this course, David Wiens, but don't blame him. Wiens is an established elite mountain biker himself and he knows the basics--essentially, you need a bike and you need a mountain--but this was the only neck of the woods ACOG was willing to give him.

"Since this was the first Olympic race, we didn't have much of a budget," Wiens said. "We never said to them, 'OK, find us the best mountain bike course around.' They told us, 'Do it at a horse park.' So we did it at a horse park."

Just how non-mountainous was the course?

A rider from Holland won the men's gold medal.

Bart Jan Brentjens, the Netherlands' finest, rode hard and fast and, well, quite level to complete the 30.3-mile race in 2:17.38. Switzerland's Thomas Frischknecht, possibly thrown off by the shortage of alpine conditions, finished second at 2:20:14. France's Miguel Martinez (2:20:36) was third.

The two U.S. entrants, David Juarez and Don Myrah, placed 19th and 20th in a field of 31. Juarez completed the course in 2:35:15, 35 seconds ahead of Myrah.

Italy's Paola Pezzo won the shorter women's race, covering 19.8 miles in 1:50:51, followed by two-time world champion Alison Sydor of Canada (1:51.58) and DeMattei (1:52.36). DeMattei's bronze medal was something of an upset, as she out-pedaled her more famous American teammate, pre-race favorite Julie Furtado of Durango, Colo., who finished a disappointing 10th at 1:58.32.

Furtado, called the "queen of American mountain biking," joined Sydor and DeMattei in the first cluster of riders to complete the first of the race's three laps, but said she "exploded" after that.

"After that first lap, I almost died," Furtado said. "At one point, I thought I had heat stroke. I couldn't get enough water. I drank so much, I got sick."

Therein lies the true challenge of the mountain bike course at George International Horse Park.

It's not the height, it's the humidity.

"The sun was out there the first two laps," Furtado said. "Did you not feel that? . . . I was looking for a pool. I was thinking, 'Maybe they could stop the race for five minutes and I could go cool off.' "

DeMattei struggled with the muggy heat as well. Wiens noticed this early in the race, so he hopped on his own bike and worked the inside of the course, trying to rendezvous with DeMattei at various points of the race and sustain her spirits.

"I was trying to give her advice--'Don't let the girls behind you draft off you, conserve energy,' " Wiens said. "Or sometimes I'd say, 'Remember Oct. 5.' That's our wedding day. When you're maxed out and hurting so bad, you'll use anything at all that enables you to dig deeper."

Pedaling through the rough while eluding race marshalls, Wiens may have covered a tougher course than DeMattei.

"It was crazy," he said. "I was riding over gravel roads, a lot of horse paths. But the worst was when I ran into the poison ivy. I couldn't ride through it, so I had to carry my bike and walk through it."

Wiens displayed the new red rash around his ankles to prove it.

Race marshalls stationed along the race route presented a different obstacle for Wiens, but he finessed his way around them.

"Remember, I'm responsible for this course," Wiens said, tugging on his Olympic mountain biking officials credential. "If a marshall started giving me a hard time, I told him I was fixing the fence."

Wiens reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of plastic ties--precisely the kind used to bind a race fence to its post--and grinned.

It's good to have connections, DeMattei had to admit.

"My fiancee was running around the course, telling me not to ride too hard," she said with a laugh. "He was there, the crowd was great--so many people, it gave me the chills. I couldn't have asked for more."

Except, perhaps, a mountain, but when you're wearing an Olympic bronze medal, who's going to quibble?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS / Cycling

MEN'S MOUNTAIN BIKE

Gold: Bart Jan Brentjens, Netherlands

Silver: Thomas Frischknecht, Switzerland

Bronze: Miguel Martinez, France

WOMEN'S MOUNTAIN BIKE

Gold: Paolo Pezzo, Italy

Silver: Alison Sydor, Canada

Bronze: Susan DeMattei, United States

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