BMX Racing: The favourites make their mark on day one in Tokyo

The moment has come. The moment that every top BMX racer had been waiting for… the Olympic Games. The fact that the fastest BMX racers on earth had to wait an extra year for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to start didn’t make the story less interesting. But it did mean restrictions around the Covid-19 situation, including there being no spectators in the grandstands that had been built at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.

In Tokyo, there’s a feeling in the air that the biggest sporting event on earth is taking place, with signs up all over the city and helicopters circling around, following live events from the sky. And BMX is an important part of these Olympic Games.

In total, 24 men and 24 women qualified for the quarter-finals which were held on Thursday 29 July. In both the men’s and women’s racing, four heats of six athletes raced three times over the track. The riders ranked 1 to 4 in each heat after the three runs made it through to Friday’s three-run semi-finals, which decide the starters for the final BMX race of the Olympic Games and the battle for medals.

It might sound easy making it to the top four in the quarter-finals after just three laps, but consider the quality of riders in just one quarter-final heat: David Graf (SUI), Carlos Ramirez (COL), Giacomo Fantoni (ITA), Connor Fields (USA), Anthony Dean (AUS), and Alfredo Campo (ECU). With multiple UCI BMX Supercross World Cup winners and the 2016 Olympic Gold medalist from the United States of America it's clearly no easy task to make it through, and obviously the competition gets more difficult the further the riders progress through the races.

The track is challenging with steep lips on the double jumps combined with rollers and huge turns. Add to that the pressure and stress of being at the Olympic Games and mistakes are bound to happen. At 495 metres, the Tokyo 2020 track is long, making fitness an important aspect of the race, not just getting a good snap out of the gate.

The four days of practice helped the athletes get used to the smooth, fast track with its Pro section on the third straight. Part of the challenge for BMX racers is being able to adapt to different situations and after two rounds the riders in Japan could form a decent idea of the competition around them.

In the men’s first two runs, Twan van Gendt (NED) brought a BMX bike with gears to the hill and scored a first and a second as did fellow Dutchman Niek Kimmann, who had suffered a nasty crash earlier in the week but managed to get back up to participate at the race he has been working towards at the UCI World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Aigle, Switzerland. David Graf (SUI) and Connor Fields (USA) also swapped the first and second place finishes in their first two runs. French athletes Joris Daudet and Sylvain André started off well with two wins each in the first two quarter final runs.

In the women’s competition, Laura Smulders (NED) and Felicia Stancil (USA) shared first and second in the first two runs of their heat and both looked fast, keeping things smooth. Great Britain's Bethany Shriever not only looked good on the practice days leading up to the quarter-finals, but showed she has plans for a podium spot in Tokyo. As expected Alise Willoughby (USA) is ready for more and was victorious both times, as was the ‘Queen of BMX’, Mariana Pajón (COL) who has the chance to win her third BMX Olympic gold medal in Japan.

But as the Olympic quarter-finals consist of three rounds it was a battle in most heats for the last transfer spot to Friday's semi-finals. In the stacked men’s first heat André, Kye Whyte (GBR), Romain Mahieu (FRA) and Corben Sharrah (USA) made it through. Japan's Yoshitaku Nagasako, a trainee at the UCI WCC, did not transfer despite scoring 12 points with 5-4-3 finishes.

In heat 2 Nicholas Torres (ARG) had luck on his side to squeeze through with 13 points and Vincent Pelluard (COL) qualified in spot number 4 with 14 points, sending UCI WCC trainee Simon Marquart (SUI) back home after he crashed in the last round. Alfredo Campo (ECU) made magic happen: after 6th and 4th places in the first two rounds he finished 2nd in the third run to transfer to the semi-finals. Connor Fields put a 40.138 on the clock for his last win of day one which was slightly slower than the final times of Kimmann (39.932s) and Joris Daudet's lap time of 39.911 seconds.

With three wins Mariana Pajon made a statement in the women’s competition, as did Laura Smulders (2-1-1), Bethany Shreiver (1-1-3) and Alise Willoughby (1-1-1). The most impressive performance was from Shriever, setting the fastest time with a 44.660s – on a long and demanding track in 31 degrees heat!

New Olympic BMX Racing champions will be crowned on Friday 30 July, with the riders set to face their next challenge in the semi-finals.

Connor Fields (USA)

Twan van Gendt (NED)

Sylvain André (FRA)

Joris Harmsen (NED)

Carlos Ramirez (COL)

Romain Mathieu (FRA)

Vincent Pelluard (COL)

Nicolas Torres (ARG)

Joris Daudet (FRA)

Niek Kimmann (NED)

Alfredo Campo (ECU)

David Graf (SUI)

Corben Sharrah (USA)

Renato Rezende (BRA)

Kye Whyte (GBR)

Tore Navrestad (NOR)

Saya Sakakibara (AUS)

Zoé Claessens (SUI)

Alise Willoughby (USA)

Mariana Pajón (COL)

Felicia Stancil (USA)

Rebecca Petch (NZL)

Merel Smulders (NED)

Drew Mechielsen (CAN)

Bethany Shriever (GBR)

Lauren Reynolds (USA)

Laura Smulders (NED)

Simone Christensen (DEN)

Elke Vanhoof (BEL)

Judy Baauw (NED)

Axelle Étienne (FRA)

Natalia Afremova (ROC)