It was a race that had anyone watching on the edge of their seats. And at the end of 90 minutes of some of the most brutal cross country mountain biking that you’re likely to see, Burry Stander crossed the line fifth. Out of the medals but a winner in every other sense.
The 24-year-old, competing in his second Olympics after finishing 15th in Beijing, rode the race of his life on a course that tested every ounce of skill and strength.
The 2011 world champion, Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic just held off Nino Schurter of Switzerland in a sprint to the line winning in a time of 1:29.07, with Italy’s Marco Fontana third, 25 seconds adrift.
The route was precarious and claimed a few victims, the Great British rider Liam Killeen and the defending Olympic champion, Julien Absalon being the most significant. The former having suffered a broken ankle and the latter puncturing, with both having to withdraw from the race.
As was expected, it was a chaotic start, but Schurter, Fontana and Kulhavy quickly established a lead, working well together as they began the first lap. Not having the best start, Stander was lying 19th after the first loop. Remaining focused, he slowly moved up the field, until he was lying fourth on the third lap, with Jose Hermida Ramos hot on his wheel. The two eventually bridged the gap to the front three leaders of Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana and the race was on between the five, the lead constantly changing, with Stander’s technical skills coming to the fore on the challenging course.
With two laps to go, Stander and Hermida lost contact and the three leaders surged ahead. It seemed Stander’s earlier efforts were simply too much for him to close the gap a second time. But again, Stander dug deep into a reservoir of guts and strength that stamps him out as a potential gold medallist in 2016, and he surged back to within sight of the leaders. However, on the last lap, despite plugging on manfully, the task was too big. It was obvious to all that he didn’t leave an ounce of strength out there on the course.
After a gripping contest, the Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy prevailed in a sprint finish with the Swiss Nico Schurter, with the Italian Marco Fontana taking bronze after his seat post snapped on the final climb. Jose Hermida Ramos crossed the line in fourth, followed on his wheel by Stander, who finished 30 seconds off gold and silver, but only four seconds off bronze.
Even the commentators claimed Stander as the hero of the day. Never before has a fifth place felt like a gold medal. Bring on 2016!
SA’s other competitor, Philip Buys crashed in the opening metres and had to change a wheel, eventually finishing in 35th place.
Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic out paces Nino Schurter of Switzerland to win