HADLEIGH, England (AP) — Julie Bresset crested the final climb of Hadleigh Farm and glanced over her shoulder, and the only thing she saw was thousands of fans cheering her on.
The rest of the field was that far behind.
The 23-year-old mountain biker from France, competing at her first Olympics, smiled and soaked in the applause. She grabbed a French flag as she coasted toward the gold medal, crossing the finish line and then raising her bike triumphantly over her head.
Her entire season boiled down to one moment of unbridled joy.
“This season I decided to focus only on the Olympics, and it paid off,” Bresset said. “The World Cup was not important this season. The only race that mattered was today’s race, and I won it.”
In the most dominating way.
Bresset took advantage of a mistake by defending gold medalist Sabine Spitz of Germany on a rough section of the picturesque course in the English countryside, then gradually pulled away from the rest of the field, rolling through the last of six laps all alone.
Her time was 1 hour, 30 minutes, 52 seconds, more than a minute ahead of Spitz, who took the silver medal.
“I took the front of the race and I managed it well,” said Bresset, who crashed during a practice ride Thursday and needed seven stitches to close the cuts.
“When I had a gap, I told myself, ‘Now I should go,’” she said. “I led until the finish.”
Spitz rounded out her collection of medals — along with gold in Beijing, she won bronze at the 2004 Athens Games. Georgia Gould of the United States earned bronze Saturday, the first medal for an American mountain biker since Susan DeMattai’s bronze in 1996.
“I knew that a medal was possible. I knew that on my best day I was capable of winning the race,” Gould said. “Julie rode a great race today. She was at the front at the start, which was smart.”
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa of Norway, who won gold in Athens, was never in contention after puncturing a tire on a remote section of the course and hiking back to her support team.
Maja Wlosczowska of Poland, the silver medalist from Beijing, didn’t start the race. She broke a bone in her foot during a training ride in Italy and was unable to compete.
Bresset’s victory could be just the start for France. Julien Absalon will go for an unprecedented third straight gold medal in the men’s race Sunday.
“I hope he will do the same. He’s capable of it,” Bresset said. “Sharing this result with him would be amazing. I hope my achievement can bring good luck to the French team.”
The women’s race went off under blue skies at Hadleigh Farm, where a 2.9-mile course was carved out of rolling hills and woodlands overlooking an estuary of the River Thames.
Britain’s Annie Last took the initiative on the opening loop, generating a massive cheer from thousands of fans who packed into the natural amphitheater near the start-finish line.
Last remained in the lead when the riders headed onto the main course, which was changed from the Olympic test event to make it more demanding. Bresset eventually attacked on a flat section, and the under-23 world champion opened a small gap on the field as it finished Lap 1.
Last started to struggle with the pace, falling away by the second lap, and Canada’s Catharine Pendrel — one of the favorites — soon joined her in trailing the leaders. Spitz and Gould began giving chase, and the three of them worked together to put nearly 30 seconds on the rest of the field.
Bresset’s big break came when Spitz crashed in a technical section of the course called “the rock garden” that also slowed Gould and left Bresset alone at the front.
“When I went over my handlebar, I hurt my knee a bit,” Spitz said. “That broke my rhythm for a short time. Thank God nothing was wrong with the bike so I could keep going.”
Bresset took advantage of the delay behind her to build on the lead, blazing over the downhill sections of the course. Even though Spitz and Gould appeared stronger on the short, punchy climbs, the two of them struggled to reel in the strongest rider in the field.
Bresset’s lead was so large on the final lap that she had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, starting her celebration with the finishing banner — and none of her competitors — within sight.
“It was crucial to take a strong start and then to race cleverly, and not to dig deep in my limits,” Bresset said. “I hoped to win a medal, and a gold medal is unbelievable.”