Blessed is the Olympic event at which an enterprising journo (that's Australian for ink-stained wretch) can work in nesting magpies, large lizards, poisonous snakes, bonking, Tinker Juarez and gold medal cleavage. We bring you mountain biking in its second incarnation as an Olympic sport, its first as a National Geographic special. The competitors in the women's and men's races pedaled furiously up and down the steep, rocky hills of Fairfield City Farm, a venue 30 miles west of downtown Sydney in a part of the world where the wonders of the Harbour, the Opera House and Marion Jones seem far away. The course, over which many riders bonked—contrary to popular belief, to bonk means to run out of gas, not to toss one's cookies—bisects two environmentally protected areas, the Cumberland Plain woodland and the Western City dry rain forest, both of which are home to emus, kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and, as we shall see, various other creatures.
A majority of the wildlife sightings and all of the dangerous encounters occurred during practice runs, before the arrival of 50,000 spectators (20,000 for the women's race last Saturday and 30,000 for the men's the following day), many of whom were confused about how to root at an event conducted mostly out of sight. Travis Brown of the U.S., who finished 32nd, two places behind teammate Tinker Juarez, in the 49-man field, met up with a six-foot lizard during his training for the grueling 30.7-mile race. Aussies would've called it a goanna; Brown, taken aback by its size, referred to it as "a dinosaur." Several riders encountered snakes, including the poisonous eastern brown, but there were no reports of wriggling reptiles on race days. That was fortunate because the how-to-deal-with-snakes tip sheet handed out by venue volunteers provided scant assistance. "Stay calm!!" read the first tip, double exclamation points notwithstanding.
Certainly a bicycle was no defense against the resident fauna. During training last week Alison Dunlap, America's best hope for a medal, was set upon by a large magpie that put a dent in her helmet. Then, informed by veteran magpie watchers that these fiercely territorial creatures won't attack from the front, Dunlap painted dots on the back of her helmet to replicate a pair of eyes. "So on my next run one of them hit me in the shoulder," Dunlap said. Magpies, evidently, are a step below snakes on the lethal animal list. "Stay calm!" read the venue missive on mags.
During her 22.2-mile race Dunlap was done in by less exotic obstacles. Cruising along with the lead pack in the early going, she crashed into a rock, jammed her hip and was thrown off the bike. She got back on, but by then she had lost so much time that she finished seventh, about four minutes behind the bronze-medal position that had been her goal. "I tried to thread the needle between a tree and a rock and didn't do it so well," said Dunlap after the race. What went through her mind at that point? "Oh, s—-," she said.
Even at her best, Dunlap would have been hard-pressed to challenge Paola Pezzo of Italy, who had won gold in Atlanta in 1996, when mountain biking made its Olympic debut. But according to Pezzo, who two years ago tested positive for nandrolone but avoided a suspension by complaining to the Italian Olympic Committee that the French testing lab had been negligent, her prowess on a bike isn't her calling card at home. "I am most popular for my cleavage," she wrote in her official Olympic bio. "I should be popular for winning a gold medal, not for my shape."
There was precious little shape to the men's winner, Miguel Martinez, 24, of France, who at 5'5" and 115 pounds is so tiny and youthful-looking that someone should place him, bike and all, atop a birthday cake. But his victory, by a comfortable minute over Belgium's Filip Meirhaeghe, was a superb fit for this strange but delightful venue. Martinez's nickname is Mighty Mouse, and after the gold medal ceremony he posed for photographers cuddling a baby koala. Apparently, they're not dangerous.