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Olympic BMX line-up prepared to thrill

AP

Colombia’s Mariana Pajon leads the pack in a women’s BMX run at the Olympics in London on Aug. 10, 2012.

Photo: AP

BMX racer Maris Strombergs has earned the nickname “The Machine.”

The Latvian is the only man to win BMX cycling gold in the discipline’s short Olympic history.

In 2008, Strombergs swept through the competition from the quarter-finals. He was not quite as strong during the early rounds in 2012, but won the final anyway. Now 29, Strombergs is to be one of the older competitors at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where the average age of a rider skews closer to the early-to-mid 20s.

USA Cycling BMX director Jaime Staff said Strombergs has the ability to peak toward one or two events per year.

“A physical specimen for sure, mentally very tough,” Staff said. “He’s able to switch it on when he needs to.”

Both the men’s and women’s fields figure to be as competitive as ever.

Mariana Pajon is a star in her native Colombia after winning gold in 2012. She took the women’s title in late May at the world BMX championships on a track named after her in her home country and figures to be a top contender again in Rio.

Pajon had been dealing with injuries in the months leading up to worlds, which limited her typical training regimen. However, she can also draw on the experience of international success.

“She knows exactly what needs to be done to be the best,” Colombia coach German Medina said.

Imagine sitting on a BMX bicycle, staring down a ramp about three stories high while anxiously awaiting a signal to take off. As with horse racing, a gate prevents anyone from getting a head start, but this is no flat, oval track. It is winding, nearly 400m-long course with groomed dirt hills serving as bumpy obstacles. Someone could be pedaling as fast as 60kph after clearing the starting ramp.

Even the best BMX competitors in the world will have to steel themselves at the Rio Olympics.

Team USA rider Alise Post compares BMX cycling to a mix of horse racing and getting in the front car of an amusement park ride.

“You’re in this starting gate ... and then everybody goes,” said Post, a top medal contender. “After that you’re riding a roller coaster. Everything happens fast out there.”

The action sport is aimed at attracting a younger audience to the Summer Games, having been introduced in 2008 in Beijing.

Post, 25, watched that competition eight years ago. She rode in London in 2012, finishing 12th.

Two of the top US riders are bouncing back from recent injuries. Connor Fields and Brooke Crain, who each competed in London, have returned to the track, and they should have plenty of time to prepare, as the BMX competition is to be held toward the end of the Olympics in mid-August.

Fields was the top-ranked American in the world before hurting his wrist this spring. He was cleared to start training again in the middle of last month and returned to the Rio-replica track for the first time on Monday.

Crain came back after five weeks away following a broken left leg. She fractured her fibula while extending the leg while trying to brace herself in a crash during a race.

The US are looking for their first BMX gold after being shut out of the podium entirely in 2012. Fields and Crain were discretionary picks to the US team . Post was an automatic qualifier after finishing third at the Worlds. On the men’s side, Fields is to be joined by automatic qualifiers Nic Long, who placed third at the Worlds, and Corben Sharrah, who won the US Olympic trials.

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