The Dutch had a weird time at the Olympics MTB
and BMX events, and we’re still left mulling over what happened. The riders who were expected to do well did poorly and Niek Kimmann, who was racing with a broken kneecap from a collision with a race official who walked in front of him
, won gold. Not to mention, two of the three Dutch BMX women who raced collided with each other in the first semi-final run meaning Laura Smulders, who put down the fastest female quarter-final lap time and was a favorite to win, did not finish.
Today though, we're going to be talking about Twan van Gendt. The tale of Twan is not all that different from the story of technically proficient Mathieu van der Poel who left his yellow jersey spot at the Tour de France
to “win gold at the Olympics” only to crash out on the Sakura drop. van Gendt, the reigning BMX Supercross World Champion, came into the race with high expectations and what seemed like all the advantages in the world, but the events that followed reminded us that Olympic victory still comes down to whether a rider can keep it together when it counts.
Twan van Gendt in his final days of prep at his home course.
van Gendt's extra gear on the first-ever two-speed Olympic BMX bike
made headlines, and a podium spot seemed like a given since he trained on an Olympic replica track that Red Bull helped build near his home in the Netherlands. Still, his races didn’t play out the way he had hoped.
Rather than a single quarterfinal and single semifinal race for each heat, the Tokyo Olympic BMX quarterfinals and semifinals each consisted of three runs per heat before a single final run for the top eight riders that made it there. In theory, the three-run system allowed riders some forgiveness from, say, a single bad run or a crash out of their control. Unfortunately for van Gendt, a rider who had three bad runs in a row was out of luck.
Things started out well. In the quarterfinals, van Gendt won the first race, then took second in both the others to the eventual winner, Kimmann. It looked as if his extra gear might have given him some extra speed, though he wasn't dominating the holeshots as some expected.
In the semi-finals, van Gendt had three out of three bad runs. In the first race, he and compatriot Joris Harmsen bumped each other. In the next run, van Gendt simply didn’t have the pace. Third, he was taken down in the crash of US favorite Connor Fields
. He finished 8th out of 8 in the first two, only finishing 7th in his third semifinal run because Fields was stretchered off the course.
On Instagram, he attributed it to bad luck:
This would have been a much different article had van Gendt won the final. There would have been an outcry from the traditionalists who think a geared BMX bike is a contradiction, and the conversation would have been about whether he won because of an unfair advantage. Several BMXers would rush to follow suit and put shifters on their bikes. Eventually the technology would be less cost-prohibitive than it is today and we would all get over it, just like mountain bikers have gotten over dropper posts and mullet bikes and 29ers all the other cool cutting-edge sacrilege out there.
Since the races played out as they did, it’s more complicated. van Gendt did have three great race runs, but they weren't the race runs that mattered. His slowest quarter-final time was 40.555, which would have put him into third place in the final. His semi-final races were just troubled. Maybe he didn’t sleep well the night between the quarter- and semi-final. Maybe the other racers were just more prepared. Maybe he just had really bad luck. Accidents do happen. The tough part of this whole thing is that we really can’t know whether his extra gear helped him at all, since all these riders are great at baseline and they’re all pushing for whatever marginal gains they can get. All we can do is speculate.
Still, I wouldn't be surprised if van Gendt's Olympic bike changes BMX. Not everyone will have forgotten that he had three great runs. Now that someone has used a multi-gear setup at a high-profile, modern race, derailleurs on BMX bikes have another opportunity to catch on. We're at what could be a tipping point. Or, this could remain another interesting blip in bike racing history, like Barry Nobles' and Brian Lopes' multi-speed BMX bikes of years past.
I, for one, am curious to see what happens.