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Canadian rider knocked out of mountain bike race

Canadian Press

Athens — After a bad start things only got worse for Ryder Hesjedal, who was knocked out of Saturday's Olympic mountain bike race with a flat tire following a crash.

Hesjedal lasted less than one lap in the 43.3-kilometre race, which was won by France's Julien Absalon.

Seamus McGrath of Carlisle, Ont., finished ninth.

A year of planning and preparation was erased when Hesjedal, 23, hit a rock on a steep, downhill chicane and was catapulted off the course.

The impact of his landing flattened his back tire and deflated his chances of overtaking the leaders.

"I've had a lot of goals along the way and this is just one of them," said the disappointed Victoria resident.

"By no means is this the climax of my cycling career. It's just a stepping stone. I think you learn more from the downs than the ups. I'll definitely learn a lot from this weekend and use that in my career."

Even though McGrath's result was very respectable he thought he could have done better.

"I wanted to go for the medal," said McGrath, a silver medalist at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

"When you go to the Olympics that's the goal, so I'm not happy. I just didn't have it."

Absalon won the race in two hours 15 minutes two seconds. He finished exactly one minute ahead of Spaniard Jose Antonio Hermida. Bart Brentjens of the Netherlands, the world's top-ranked rider and 1996 Olympic champion, took the bronze in 2:17:05.

McGrath was clocked in 2:20:33.

The opening of the competition looked like a NASCAR race. The 52 riders exploded down a short straightway, then careened around a sharp, uphill corner.

There was bedlam as riders exchanged skin after they crashed into each other like bumper cars. Hesjedal was one of several knocked off his bike.

"To send 50 guys into that corner on gravel, you can expect that's going to happen," said Hesjedal.

To make up for lost ground, Hesjedal had to attack the course.

"I had to switch to an even more aggressive race," he said.

"I was pretty happy. I was moving up pretty well. I was passing guys and already into the top 10."

After battling up a leg-burning steep climb, Hesjedal tried to gain time down a spine-crunching, dusty, twisting, descent.

"I was letting it go to make sure I wasn't out of the race on the first lap," he said.

"A larger rock rolled into the main chicane. Somehow I got kicked out really bad. I was blasted through the tape and my back tire was flat."

Hesjedal tried to repair the tire, but it went flat again. By then he had been passed by the pack.

"I was dead last 10 minutes into the race," he shrugged.

Hesjedal was considered a contender, having won a silver medal at last year's world championships. He also spent time training this year with the U.S. Postal Service road race team, which is anchored by six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

"All the signs were there," he said.

"I put in a lot of effort, really saved myself for the end of the year and had my focus on this race. I'm disappointed for myself but more for everybody that's helped me for this day."

Winning this race had been Absalon's focus ever since failing to make France's Olympic team four years ago.

"My preparation was very tough," Absalon said. "I've dreamed of this moment a hundred times before. Now it's true. It's for real."

It was the final cycling event of the Athens Games. Australia, with 10 medals, dominated the overall standings; Germany, with six medals, finished second; the United States won three medals, all in the road time trials on Aug. 18.

Canada won two medals: Lori-Ann Muenzer's gold in the women's sprint and Marie-Helene Premont's silver in the women's mountain bike.

Miguel Martinez, France's 1996 bronze medalist and defending Olympic champion, dropped out after five laps because of cramps and dehydration.

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