Marc Willers produces BMX dominant display
The contrast could hardly have been greater; Marc Willers cruising through to the Olympic men's BMX semifinals while his New Zealand team-mate Kurt Pickard crashed out in spectacular fashion today.
While Willers stamped himself as one of the favourites for gold with two wins and a second in his three heat runs, Pickard was assisted from the track and seemingly lucky to avoid broken bones, his Olympic campaign over.
After a fifth and a third placing, Pickard was in contention to qualify for the semifinals in the 32-man field with a good finish in his third run, but disaster struck on the first straight.
During a jump he came off his bike in mid-air and landed directly on his right ankle, then flipped over before lying prone on the dirt track at Olympic Park.
The 21-year-old from Tauranga was carried off the track by several officials but managed to exit the arena by himself.
New Zealand coach Ken Cools didn't know what went wrong, and said both Pickard's ankles and his thigh were very sore and he'd lost a lot of skin.
It seemed he wouldn't require x-rays but he was booked to see New Zealand Olympic team doctor Lynne Coleman in the athletes' village.
Pickard was too sore to line up in the fourth and fifth runs which offered a chance for two more riders to progress to the semifinals.
"The kid's a gladiator, though. Yesterday he crashed in warm-ups and tweaked his ankle. Today when he woke up he could barely walk on his ankle. For him to put those two laps in before he crashed, he's a tough kid," Cools said.
"As to be expected he's pretty gutted. His Olympic dream has come to an end so he's pretty down."
Willers, meanwhile, was the beneficiary of a big crash in his first run when all seven riders behind him came down and he was able to go at half-pace for the victory.
The 26-year-old US-based Cambridge rider was pipped on the line by Frenchman Joris Daudet in run two, then dominated off the front in run three.
"It's been tough mentally and physically. The nerves came around in a big way for that first race, but it all fell my way. It was good to have that first cruisy lap and get those nerves out of the way and start again," Willers said.
Willers' fast start was the key, such an important aspect of BMX where the leader at the first corner is tough to beat on the 450m track.
"That's why I train to get out in front so I don't get caught up in all that kind of stuff. The gate and first straight is normally my strong point and then I hold on and take up as much of the track as I can after that so no one can get past."
Said Cools: "He [Willers] has a winning streak here; he won the test event and did really well today. He seems to be in a good head space. When Marc Willers is on point [leading], he is the man."
There were plenty of crashes but coach Cools said the track wasn't dangerous, it was more the pressure of the Olympics that was causing angst.
Willers and compatriot Sarah Walker, who qualified second-fastest yesterday, face three semifinal runs tomorrow before the top-four from each go through to a one-off final.
The women's medal race is at 3.30am and the men's is 10 minutes later.
Willers' only minor concern was the draw which pitted most of the top riders in his half, including defending champion Maris Strombergs of Latvia and world champion Sam Willoughby of Australia.
"They definitely found a way to get all the fast guys in one semifinal."
Dutchman Raymon van der Beizen and American Connor Fields showed their class in the top half of the draw, winning all three of their heat runs.