By Shiho Tanaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Mountain bike king Nino Schurter faces a formidable challenge to his Olympic crown from a couple of hungry young road warriors on Monday but says the Izu course gives him a shot at a second successive gold medal.
The 35-year-old Swiss has been a dominant force in mountain bikes since winning the first of his eight world titles in 2009 and in Rio claimed the Olympic crown after a bronze in Beijing and a silver medal in London.
Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel and Britain's Tom Pidcock, who earn their livings on the professional road circuit despite a background in cross-country, are both strongly fancied for victory on Monday. But Schurter believes he has an edge.
"A lot of things come together here that make me feel positive: the track, which suits me very well, the hot-dry climate, the bike specially adapted to the requirements and now also the good test results from the new tyres", Schurter told Reuters this week in the build-up to the race.
"If I had to build a track, it would look exactly like this one here in Izu."
The course in question is a 4.1km circuit featuring 150 metres of elevation gain per lap with plenty of rocky, technical sections. The number of laps is still to be determined although it is likely to be eight or nine.
Schurter, who took up mountain biking to improve his fitness for skiing and has been with his coach Nicolas Siegenthaler for more than 20 years, was perhaps disadvantaged by the year-long delay to the Games as he is approaching the end of his career.
But the Olympics holds a special connection for him.
"The Olympics and me, that is an emotional, simply beautiful story," he said. "Now I get to be there for the fourth time -- and I have this vision to win again."
Ineos Grenadiers rider Pidcock, 21, claimed his first World Cup win at Nove Mestre this year and had arranged his season to focus on the mountain bike event in Tokyo.
He did suffer a setback though when he was struck by a car and broke his collarbone in training.
That has healed but he said the searing heat expected on Monday on the Izu Peninsula, about 140km southwest of Tokyo, will be a big challenge.
"It's the biggest factor," Pidcock says.
Van de Poel, meanwhile, comes in straight from winning a stage on the Tour de France and wearing the yellow jersey for six days.
He only flew to Tokyo four days before his race, although he left the Tour after eight stages to re-familiarise himself with riding off road.
"It was to get a bit of feeling of being on the mountain bike," he said this week. "The difference is big between a mountain bike and a road bike. I still have two days to explore the course, that is enough."
Schurter warned that neither should take the course for granted, saying that when he rode the test event in 2019 it was the toughest he had experienced.
"If you want to win on this track, you can't have any weaknesses," he said, adding that his biggest fear will be the rain showers expected on Monday.
"In wet, slippery conditions, I am no longer one of the best," he said.
(Writing by Martyn Herman; Editing by Peter Rutherford)