Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
HADLEIGH, England – Julie Bresset crested the final climb of Hadleigh Farm and glanced over her shoulder, and the only thing she saw was thousands of fans cheering her on.
The rest of the field was that far behind.
The 23-year-old mountain biker from France, competing at her first Olympics, smiled and soaked in the applause. She grabbed a French flag as she coasted toward the gold medal, crossing the finish line and then raising her bike triumphantly over her head.
Her entire season boiled down to one moment of unbridled joy.
“This season I decided to focus only on the Olympics, and it paid off,” Bresset said. “The World Cup was not important this season. The only race that mattered was (Saturday’s) race, and I won it.”
In the most dominating way.
Bresset took advantage of a mistake by defending gold medalist Sabine Spitz of Germany on a rough section of the picturesque course in the English countryside, then gradually pulled away from the rest of the field, rolling through the last of six laps all alone.
Her time was 1 hour, 30 minutes, 52 seconds, more than a minute ahead of Spitz, who took the silver medal.
“I took the front of the race, and I managed it well,” said Bresset, who crashed during a practice ride Thursday and needed seven stitches to close the cuts.
“When I had a gap, I told myself, ‘Now I should go,’” she said. “I led until the finish.”
Spitz rounded out her collection of medals – along with gold in Beijing, she won bronze at the 2004 Athens Games.
Georgia Gould of the United States earned bronze Saturday, the first medal for an American mountain biker since Susan DeMattai’s bronze in 1996.
“I knew that a medal was possible. I knew that on my best day I was capable of winning the race,” said Gould, who lives in Fort Collins. “Julie rode a great race (Saturday). She was at the front at the start, which was smart.”
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa of Norway, who won gold in Athens, never was in contention after puncturing a tire on a remote section of the course and hiking back to her support team.
Maja Wlosczowska of Poland, the silver medalist from Beijing, didn’t start the race. She broke a bone in her foot during a training ride in Italy and was unable to compete.
Bresset’s victory could be just the start for France. Julien Absalon will go for an unprecedented third consecutive gold medal in the men’s race today.
Durangoan Todd Wells will represent the U.S. in his third Olympic Games.
“I hope (Absalon) will do the same. He’s capable of it,” Bresset said. “Sharing this result with him would be amazing. I hope my achievement can bring good luck to the French team.”
The women’s race went off under blue skies at Hadleigh Farm, where a 2.9-mile course was carved out of rolling hills and woodlands overlooking an estuary of the River Thames.
Bresset’s lead was so large on the final lap that she had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
“It was crucial to take a strong start and then to race cleverly, and not to dig deep in my limits,” Bresset said. “I hoped to win a medal, and a gold medal is unbelievable.”
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.