With Olympic spots up for grabs, riders will be hoping for more than just medals at the upcoming UCI BMX World Championships in Medellin, Colombia.
Any U.S. athlete who finishes on the podium will automatically earn one of the three men’s and two women’s quota spots for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games (up to two women), and in a sport where anything can happen, elite rider Corben Sharrah said you can never count anyone out.
“I would say just about anyone from any country could come out and go fast,” he said. “From my experience, in the elite class there’s always weird stuff that happens at worlds. There are guys that get on the podium that end up just going fast that day, or something weird happens where a few guys wreck up front and guys get spots on the podium.
“You see it every year, just about. I wouldn’t single out anybody. It’s worlds, and anything can happen.”
The competition will be held May 25-29.
The U.S. men’s team is first in the UCI Olympic qualification rankings but enters the world championships missing top rider Connor Fields. The seventh-place finisher at the London 2012 Olympic Games is out following reconstructive surgery on his wrist. Fields has long held the top spot in the U.S. power rankings, but Sharrah will pass him in points at worlds. Sharrah also represents the U.S. men’s team’s best chance at a worlds medal.
The 24-year-old native of Tucson, Arizona, was coming back from a bad leg injury last Olympic cycle and missed the London Games, but USA Cycling Director of BMX Jamie Staff said Sharrah is really starting to shine this year.
“Corben is very smooth on the track, very precise,” Staff said of Sharrah, who won the world cup season opener in March. “He makes it look effortless, and he’s beautiful to watch ride.”
Also representing the U.S. men in Colombia will be Jeffrey Upshaw, of Dayton, Ohio; 2012 Olympian David Herman, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado; Justin Posey, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Tanner Sebesta, of Austin, Texas; and 2012 Olympian Nic Long, of Lakeside, California.
“(Long’s) a great athlete and has a great work ethic,” Staff said. “He probably works harder than anyone else, but he’s really turned it up this year. He lost about 15 or 20 pounds and some of the things he does in training, you can see he’s really trying to go at 400 percent.”
The women are also first in the UCI Olympic qualification rankings but are also missing a key rider in Brooke Crain. She broke her fibula during a recent world cup race, and the 2012 Olympian is now playing a waiting game in terms of her Olympic future. Teammate Alise Post is a lock to finish first in the power rankings and earn one of the two women’s Olympic slots. The St. Cloud, Minnesota, native will be competing at the world championships along with Felicia Stancil, of Lake Villa, Illinois, and Dani George, of Palmdale, California. If either Stancil or George makes the podium, Crain will be out for Rio.
Crain said there are at least five or six women who could finish on top of the podium in Medellin.
“You just never know, but obviously (Colombia’s) Mariana Pajon, the (2012 Olympic) gold medalist, it’s her home track so she’s going to be a favorite,” said Crain, who’s also had to fight through three bouts of strep throat, pneumonia and even bird flu this season. “There’s also Stefany Hernandez from Venezuela. She won the world championship last year, so she’s going to be a favorite. Alise is the top American, and Caroline Buchanan, from Australia, has won two out of the last three world cups, so there’s going to be lots of competition.”
In addition to facing the world’s best competition, riders will also have to deal with a track that is highly technical as well as the altitude in Medellin, just shy of 5,000 feet.
Tracks vary in length between 300 and 400 meters, Staff said, and the one in Colombia is on the longer side. Whereas a lap on some of the tracks on the world cup circuit take about 28 seconds to complete, this one will take riders closer to 40. The track where the national team trains, in Chula Vista, California, takes about 38-40 seconds.
“So that’s one thing. Plus the way the jumps are built, they’re a little steeper, little harder to get over and closer together, whereas in the U.S. the takeoffs and landings are a little flatter,” Staff said. “You have to be a little more precise when you’re on the bike so when you add in speed, it makes it challenging. Not impossible, just different. There’s less room for error.”
Sharrah said it’s a matter of riders approaching the race like they would any other, by studying the track, using practice runs to get a feel for it and then just going for it come race time. With a trip to Rio on the line, he said, the excitement level among the team is high.
“There are definitely spots up for grabs, especially with a couple of riders out with injuries,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for some, but for others, the door could open. That’s how BMX racing is; it’s just part of the sport. Nothing’s solidified for anyone so it’s kind of exciting. Everyone’s definitely going to go even harder and be battling and racing for those spots.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.