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ANNECY, France (ST) — As eighty dirt-fond men line up on a hillside in Hadleigh Farm for the Olympic cross-country race, all eyes will be on a select few. Young Swiss superstar Nino Schurter is now the headline, following a commanding victory at Val d’Isere last weekend and a World Cup overall triumph, followed closely by veteran Frenchman Julien Absalon, quiet world champ Jaroslav Kulhavy and Italy’s Marco Fontana.
But at the Olympics, with the eyes of the world and pressure of national magnitude sitting on every favorite’s shoulders, anything can happen.
Headed into his first Olympic games, U.S. mountain bike team member Sam Schultz is counting on just that. The Missoula, Montana native comes into the Games with a career-best 10th place in a world cup, which came at Windham Mountain in New York this year, as his top international finish. A medal, by his own admission, would be an incredible performance.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t go for it. And he’ll do so with his trademark relaxed attitude and without the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
“I think anything is possible,” he said with a smile following the final World Cup of the season in Val d’Isere, France.
“I know I’m coming in as an underdog,” said the Subaru-Trek rider, who was crowned US champ just a month ago in Sun Valley, Idaho, just ahead of Olympic teammate Todd Wells. “But it’s unreal how much support I’ve had going into it, and I feel like the form is right where it needs to be, and I’m riding as well as I ever have.”
Val d’Isere wasn’t the confirmation of form he was looking for, at least not on the results sheet. A bit of over-excitement and over-pacing on the second lap left him gasping — and eventually crashing — on the trickiest descent on the course. He hit the ground again on the final lap, and was forced to pull out a multi-tool to straighten his handlebars before continuing. He ended the day in 35th out of 97 starters.
Nonetheless, the legs were good. “I felt like my form was a little better than my result,” he said after the race, adding “that’s a good place to be.”
Schultz hasn’t yet raced the Olympic course, opting out of the test event held last summer, won in commanding fashion by Absalon, but he has ridden the track. “They had a ride day after the Dalby Forest world cup,” he explained. “We checked it out then.
“There’s nothing super tricky, but since then they’ve added another rock garden I think. There are a couple spots that are good to learn. Lots of man-made rock gardens that have a good line, that aren’t hard to ride but are hard to ride fast.”
Schultz and the rest of the U.S. squad, consisting of Luna’s Georgia Gould and Specialized’s Wells and Lea Davison, will arrive in the U.K. next Monday, leaving them six days to practice on the man-made course situated on a hillside well outside London.
“We’ll spend a bunch of time getting that fast line dialed in,” Schultz said. “It’s good to get there a week before so I can get some good hard laps on the course, get my pacing and lines down so when I go into those rock gardens cross-eyed I’ll know where to go.”
As for not arriving a week earlier, and participating in the opening ceremony, Schultz was more sartorial.
“I wouldn’t skip a race, you know, though it would have been cool to be walking. But I’m really not sure about the outfits, not really my style. But I think I could have pulled it off.”
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