BMX: Australian will feel hot breath of Latvian

By Kris Shannon

Willoughby is out in front, but close behind is Olympian Strombergs

Maris Strombergs says he feels fast and good but he's not as consistent as he was before he had a major injury in 2010. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Maris Strombergs says he feels fast and good but he's not as consistent as he was before he had a major injury in 2010. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Vector Arena is more accustomed to hosting the biggest names in music than sport, but two of the rock stars of BMX will guarantee a good show this weekend.

After standing side by side on the podium in London, Sam Willoughby has pulled clear of Maris Strombergs and will have a target on his back at the BMX World Championships.

That target comes in the form of the No 1 bib, earned after the Australian won 13 straight races on the US circuit this season - perfect preparation for defending the world championship crown he claimed last year in Birmingham.

But, despite trailing in Willoughby's wake, Strombergs should not be discounted. The Latvian has two Olympic gold medals to prove that, while he also earned an unplanned victory on the European circuit this year.

Their respective resumes will make for an intriguing battle when racing begins tomorrow, though Willoughby, a typically cocksure Australian, was in confident mood when asked to assess his form against Strombergs.

"Pretty good this year - 13 out of 14," he laughed. "Obviously he's good - he's a two-time Olympic gold medallist, he's won the world championships twice, he knows what to do.

"I'm obviously going to be trying to beat him but he'll be there for sure."

For how much longer Strombergs will be there remains to be seen. His 26 years make him one of the older heads in a young man's game and he admitted he is now just trying to "keep up with those young guys".

"I still feel young but, at the same time, I look at the sport and the top guys right now are 20, 21, 22," Strombergs said. "I had a big injury in 2010 and, since then, things are not the same any more. I still feel fast, I feel good, but I'm just not as consistent."

That, and perhaps Willoughby's dominance, saw Strombergs head back to European racing for the first time since 2008. He enjoyed a renaissance on the technical tracks in Europe, something which will hold him in good stead on the tight Vector Arena course.

"My season started off slowly in America, so I decided to go back, do a few races in Europe, get the fun and excitement back.

"My goal wasn't to go for a title in Europe. I just kind of did a few races and then, when I had a few good scores, I was just like, hey, maybe I'll go for a title."

He will undoubtedly have similar designs in Auckland, though the man he bested in London will be sure to have a say.

Willoughby lived rough after leaving his home in Adelaide at 16 and determined to make his way in the sport. Crashing on couches in California until he won enough races to make a living, he gives the impression he is determined to avoid letting that hard graft go to waste.

"You feel pressure when you have the No 1 on your back because everyone wants to take it away from you," he said. "But I don't feel any more pressure [at the world championships]. Every race I go to I want to win."

Willoughby pointed to the opening corner as being pivotal tomorrow, meaning inside lanes - accrued by fast times in motos and quarter-finals - were essential. And while he was determined to be the world champion again, Willoughby also promised he was here to entertain.

"I'm just excited to get in that arena," he said. "I'm just going to lay my cards on the table and what happens, happens. Either way it's going to be a fun show."


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