Two-time defending Olympic champion Julien Absalon wants to make it three in a row. The Frenchman is peaking again and looks determined to make history in Sunday's mountain bike race, four days before celebrating his 32nd birthday.
Absalon, who won the gold medal in Athens and Beijing, can become the first cyclist to win three Olympic titles in a specific event at the Games if his aging legs don't betray him on the track built at Hadleigh Farm in Essex, east of London.
"It is not being able to obtain a third Olympic title that motivates me. It is above all to win the best race in the world that exists in our discipline," Absalon told a press conference earlier this week.
Absalon is competing in his final Games, having previously said he would continue to ride for two more years after London. Although he is not as dominant as during his heyday, when he won four consecutive world titles from 2004-07, the Frenchman is renowned for his ability to deliver at big events.
Absalon struggled last season, but managed to win the Olympic test event. He bounced back this year with two World Cup successes and won his last preparation race before London, the Belgian GP.
He now has a chance to give France its second gold medal in mountain bike events after Julie Bresset claimed the Olympic title in the women's race on Saturday.
In Athens, the Frenchman took his rivals by surprise. Four years later in China, he managed to avoid the traps set by his opponents to retain his title.
"In Athens I was very young and it was the start of my dominance in the discipline," he said. "In Beijing I was the hot favorite and I had to face a lot of stress and expectations. I've come here more relaxed, I've got more experience, I'm the only one to have already won two gold medals and this takes some pressure off of me. One medal here would be just a bonus."
Absalon's main rival on the man-made course overlooking an estuary of the Thames will be Nino Schurter of Switzerland, a bronze medalist in Beijing who has since been world champion and claimed four world cup wins this year.
"I'm not anymore the only man to beat, like in Beijing," Absalon said. "I think the big favorite this time is Nino Schurter, followed by Jaroslav Kulhavy and myself. I would say there are three favorites. Schurter had an extraordinary season. He was in form very early, managing to have a great season. His coach is very good and knows what he's doing. We'll see."
Absalon previewed the course several times and will be looking for a fast start to avoid the traffic and crashes he expects in the first lap.
Unlike the heavily wooded course in Beijing, the course is mostly wide open, though it has several short climbs and a technical section built by hauling in massive boulders.
"You can't win the race just with a good start, but you can lose it with a bad start," said Absalon, who slightly injured his wrist in a crash last month. "The first corners will be very slippery and it will be crucial to be up front to avoid crashes. Big gaps are likely to be made in the first lap. There are a lot of big stones on the course and when you fall on this kind of course, it's hard to get back on your bike."
There is not much strategy in mountain bike racing but Absalon is confident his French teammates Jean-Christophe Peraud, a silver medalist in Beijing, and Stephane Tempier will take their share of the work to harden the race.
"Both can be in the Top 10 and will ride up front," Absalon said. "We've got one the best teams."
Peraud rode the Tour de France in July and the big question mark is how he will have recovered from his efforts.
Kulhavy, the reining world champion of Czech Republic, has based his whole season on the Olympics and is expected to be in the mix along with South Africa's Burry Stander and Manuel Fumic of Germany as cycling at the London Games wraps up on Sunday.