Wild Ride No worries? Hah! At the mountain biking venue the hazards ranged from mad magpies to alleged dinosaurs

October 01, 2000

Blessed is the Olympic event at which an enterprising journo
(that's Australian for ink-stained wretch) can work in nesting
magpies, large lizards, poisonous snakes, bonking, Tinker Juarez
and gold medal cleavage. We bring you mountain biking in its
second incarnation as an Olympic sport, its first as a National
Geographic special. The competitors in the women's and men's
races pedaled furiously up and down the steep, rocky hills of
Fairfield City Farm, a venue 30 miles west of downtown Sydney in
a part of the world where the wonders of the Harbour, the Opera
House and Marion Jones seem far away. The course, over which
many riders bonked--contrary to popular belief, to bonk means to
run out of gas, not to toss one's cookies--bisects two
environmentally protected areas, the Cumberland Plain woodland
and the Western City dry rain forest, both of which are home to
emus, kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and, as we shall see, various
other creatures.

A majority of the wildlife sightings and all of the dangerous
encounters occurred during practice runs, before the arrival of
50,000 spectators (20,000 for the women's race last Saturday and
30,000 for the men's the following day), many of whom were
confused about how to root at an event conducted mostly out of
sight. Travis Brown of the U.S., who finished 32nd, two places
behind teammate Tinker Juarez, in the 49-man field, met up with
a six-foot lizard during his training for the grueling 30.7-mile
race. Aussies would've called it a goanna; Brown, taken aback by
its size, referred to it as "a dinosaur." Several riders
encountered snakes, including the poisonous eastern brown, but
there were no reports of wriggling reptiles on race days. That
was fortunate because the how-to-deal-with-snakes tip sheet
handed out by venue volunteers provided scant assistance. "Stay
calm!!" read the first tip, double exclamation points

Certainly a bicycle was no defense against the resident fauna.
During training last week Alison Dunlap, America's best hope for
a medal, was set upon by a large magpie that put a dent in her
helmet. Then, informed by veteran magpie watchers that these
fiercely territorial creatures won't attack from the front,
Dunlap painted dots on the back of her helmet to replicate a pair
of eyes. "So on my next run one of them hit me in the shoulder,"
Dunlap said. Magpies, evidently, are a step below snakes on the
lethal animal list. "Stay calm!" read the venue missive on mags.

During her 22.2-mile race Dunlap was done in by less exotic
obstacles. Cruising along with the lead pack in the early going,
she crashed into a rock, jammed her hip and was thrown off the
bike. She got back on, but by then she had lost so much time that
she finished seventh, about four minutes behind the bronze-medal
position that had been her goal. "I tried to thread the needle
between a tree and a rock and didn't do it so well," said Dunlap
after the race. What went through her mind at that point? "Oh,
s---," she said.

Even at her best, Dunlap would have been hard-pressed to
challenge Paola Pezzo of Italy, who had won gold in Atlanta in
1996, when mountain biking made its Olympic debut. But according
to Pezzo, who two years ago tested positive for nandrolone but
avoided a suspension by complaining to the Italian Olympic
Committee that the French testing lab had been negligent, her
prowess on a bike isn't her calling card at home. "I am most
popular for my cleavage," she wrote in her official Olympic bio.
"I should be popular for winning a gold medal, not for my shape."

There was precious little shape to the men's winner, Miguel
Martinez, 24, of France, who at 5'5" and 115 pounds is so tiny
and youthful-looking that someone should place him, bike and all,
atop a birthday cake. But his victory, by a comfortable minute
over Belgium's Filip Meirhaeghe, was a superb fit for this
strange but delightful venue. Martinez's nickname is Mighty
Mouse, and after the gold medal ceremony he posed for
photographers cuddling a baby koala. Apparently, they're not

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO PRECARIOUS PEDALING The steep and rocky course at Fairfield City Farm outside Sydney was tough on riders male and female, especially the top U.S. woman.