Absolut(ely) Absalon: Undeniably the Greatest
No need for an introduction, you all know Julien Absalon; the man who is more at ease on the bike than in front of cameras, who prefers to let his results do the talking. At the eve of his penultimate international season that kicked off in Nove Mesto na Morave, we caught up with the leader of the BMC MTB Racing Team to go through the highlights of his career...
Mont-Sainte-Anne 1998 – The 'Click'
I became Junior World Champion in Mont-Sainte-Anne in '98 just a few weeks after winning the European Championships. That was the first time I thought “Maybe I can make a career out of cycling”. Before that I never thought about turning pro. Although I started cycling pretty late in my life everything came to me really quickly and naturally. My parents had no cycling background and I had no idea how it all worked. But after just a few months of training I finished 4th at the French National Championships. Many national podiums followed but I never managed to pin a win. As a consequence, I was not selected for the 1997 World Championships (1st year Junior). But after that I won the French Cup at Roc d’Azur and the following year, in 1998, I won everything...
I had a great race in Mont-Sainte-Anne. I was really in control of what was happening, from the start to the finish. I won in front of Ryder Hesjedal but to be honest thats about as much I can remember about the race - it was that intense. I kept studying for a couple of years after that and finally turned pro with Bianchi in 2001.
Durango 2001 – First World Cup win
I was in my second U23 season. It came as a surprise as I had never achieved a podium or a top 5 before. I was lucky that day! Roland Green was dominating but had two or three flat tires. I passed him many times times but he always caught me again. In the last lap, I was second behind Cadel Evans but he also had a flat tire and I passed him with 400m to the finish line. It was a lot of luck and a real surprise to win in the end.
Athens 2004 – Day of grace
I was not one of the favorites but more of an outsider for a medal. That day was a real day of grace! I was on cloud nine, I rode a perfect race and won gold. With the date approaching, and although it was my first Olympic experience, I felt more and more serene. At the same time I was excited and looking forward to the race. Nothing could happen to me, I was programmed to win. Now I actually don’t remember much of the race itself. We only get two or three days like this in a lifetime, this was my first one.
Les Gets 2004 – In the Momentum of the Olympic Games
I was still on a cloud after Athens. I arrived in Les Gets in total holiday mode. Three days before the race I was even having a fun barbecue with Cedric Gracia and Max Commençal…my coach managed to get me focused again: “You were in the shape of your life two weeks ago, you can't let it all go!” The day before the race I heard the Marseillaise played for Fabien Barel’s victory in the Downhill event, then I heard the rain falling all night long, and in the morning I woke up feeling like a warrior! I took some risks and went with mud tyres with almost no air.
I wasn’t feeling that bad at the top of the first climb and passed everyone in the downhill. I arrived at the bottom with a 30-40’’ gap. Even though they caught me again on the climbs, I was so fast on the descents that those gaps I kept opening up were how I won the race. On that day, I became World Champion while I hadn’t even thought of racing three days beforehand. That podium will always be very special to me. I shared it with Thomas Frischknecht (bronze) –the benchmark at the time and someone I really admired – and my buddy Cédric Ravanel (silver). It was a great podium and winning my first Elite World Championships at home in France, felt fantastic.
2005-2007 - Absalon n°1
Val di Sole 2008 – the End of Success
Val di Sole was a big fail for me. But all in all, it was a good thing. Without it, I doubt I would have become Olympic Champion for the second time a month later. Unlike just before the Olympics in 2004, I was in a downward spiral where stress and challenge outshone want and passion. I was not feeling well and the loss at Val di Sole forced me to question everything.
Race after race people had gotten used to seeing me win and when I suddenly stopped winning people would say “Absalon lost, Absalon beaten” and this pressure became harder and harder to manage. After Val di Sole, the pressure disappeared; I wasn't World Champion anymore. Within a month, I managed to find some balance again and I arrived in Beijing in a very different state of mind, hungry to win yet enjoy the experience at the same time.
Beijing 2008 – Second Olympic Gold
I finally arrived in Beijing and wanted to have fun there. I was there to enjoy my second Olympics as much as possible. Race standards had changed a lot compared to Athens four years before. It was more difficult to open up a gap on the other riders. People expected something from me there as I was the defending champion.That was another great day, I managed the race perfectly. This title was a consecration and also a confirmation of the first one. Winning the Olympics twice, it was so awesome! It was also when people got to know Nino Schurter who would take a bite out of me in the next years.
Canberra 2009 – Sprint defeat, the first of a long series
The World Championships in Canberra is when we discovered a new type of racing. Until then, sprint finishes and tactics did not really exist. The race in Canberra was very tactical, with a few Swiss riders working together against me, a lot of wind and a very fast course. I did not manage to get rid of Nino and he beat me on the line. Finishing second is ok but second in a sprint at World Championships was hard to digest…
After that, I lost a whole series of other races in sprints against Nino. He quickly understood that he was the fastest when it came to sprint finishes and he played smart. With more experience, he started assuming his new role, he had become the boss. I couldn’t find the solution, a way to beat him and started developing an inferiority complex. Many people said I was done but I only went from number 1 to number 2! Losing one position in the UCI ranking was not such a big deal but I remember being on the start line in Nove Mesto with a 12 on my number plate. It was after the London Olympics and a few DNF races. It was a real blow to my morale!
London 2012 – the Disappointment
The London Olympics are definitely the biggest disillusionment and disappointment of my career. I trained like never before for this race and arrived there as fit as it was possible but could not defend my chances because of a slow puncture. A mechanical at the Olympics…it is so hard to accept. I will never know what would have happened if…The best way for me to turn the page was to focus on the future. But it had been hard times. In 2013, I joined the BMC MTB Racing Team and it helped me a lot. After six great years with Orbea, changing material, environment, and people gave me the new and necessary motivation to carry on.
2014 – Grand slam
I won everything in 2014: the French, European, and World Championships, three World Cups and the overall series! Of course I had high goals and expectations but if someone had come to me and said I would win so much, I would have never believed it.
I arrived very relaxed in Hafjell and it is often how things go best
My wife was also pregnant with our second child, so I wanted to have a great start to the season. You never know what can happen in the last weeks of a pregnancy or in the first few months of the baby’s life so I focused on the first few races. I won the first two World Cups in Pietermaritzburg and Cairns. After that, I hadn’t really planned to go to North America but eventually did. Everything went well there and I consolidated my lead in the overall classification.
On the back of a new World Cup title I arrived very relaxed in Hafjell and it is often how things go best.
New season, new motivation: We are now at the beginning of the 2015 season, your penultimate surely. What are your goals for this new season?
It is a pre-Olympic season and we are all already thinking about Rio. I would like to get to the same level as last year and win as much: a few World Cups and the French, European and World Championships as well. Lets see how it goes...!