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Competitive fields head to gate in third Olympics for BMX

BMX racer Maris Strombergs has earned the nickname "The Machine."

The Latvian is the only man to win BMX cycling gold in the discipline's short Olympic history.

In 2008, Strombergs swept through the competition from the quarterfinals. He wasn't quite as strong during the early rounds in 2012, but won the final anyway. Now 29, Strombergs will be one of the older competitors at the Rio Olympics, where the average age of a rider skews closer to the early-to-mid 20s.

Strombergs does have that Olympic pedigree , though. USA Cycling BMX director Jaime Staff said Strombergs has the ability to peak toward one or two events a year.

"A physical specimen for sure, mentally very tough," Staff said. "He's able to switch it on when he needs to."

Both the men's and women's fields figure to be as competitive as ever. Here are a few notes and other things to watch in Brazil:

MEET MARIANA

Mariana Pajon is a star in her native Colombia after winning gold in 2012.

She took the women's title in late May at the world BMX championships on a track named after her in her home country, and figures to be a top contender again in Rio.

Pajon had been dealing with injuries in the months leading up to worlds that limited her typical training regimen. But Pajon can also draw on the experience of international success.

"She knows exactly what needs to be done to be the best," said Colombia coach German Medina.

WHAT A RUSH

Imagine sitting on a BMX bicycle, staring down a ramp about three stories high while anxiously awaiting a signal to take off. As with horse racing, a gate prevents anyone from getting a head start. But this is no flat, oval track. It's winding, nearly quarter mile-long course with groomed dirt hills serving as bumpy obstacles. Someone could be pedaling as fast as 40 mph after clearing the starting ramp.

Even the best BMX competitors in the world will have to steel themselves at the Rio Olympics. Team USA rider Alise Post compares BMX cycling to a mix of horse racing and getting in the front car of an amusement park ride.

"You're in this starting gate ... and then everybody goes," said Post, a top medal contender . "After that you're riding a roller coaster. Everything happens fast out there."

The action sport is aimed at attracting a younger audience to the Summer Games, having been introduced in 2008 in Beijing. Post, 25, watched that competition eight years ago. She rode in London in 2012, finishing 12th.

OLYMPIAN EFFORTS

Two of the top U.S. riders are bouncing back from recent injuries. Connor Fields and Brooke Crain, who each competed in London, have returned to the track, and they should have plenty of time to prepare since the BMX competition will be held toward the end of the Olympics in mid-August.

Fields was the top-ranked American in the world before hurting his wrist this spring. He was cleared to start training again in mid-June, and returned to the Rio-replica track for the first time on June 27. Crain came back after five weeks away following a broken left leg. She fractured her fibula while extending the leg while trying to brace herself from a crash during a race.

TEAM USA

The United States is looking for its first BMX gold and was shut out of the podium entirely in 2012. Fields and Crain were discretionary picks to the U.S. team. Post was an automatic qualifier after finishing third at worlds. On the men's side, Fields will be joined by automatic qualifiers Nic Long, who placed third at worlds; and Corben Sharrah, who won the U.S. Olympic trials. It's the strongest squad that Team USA could field, headlined by some of the top-ranked racers in the world.

"Probably the best team we could wish for," Staff said.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Niek Kimmann of the Netherlands, who won the time trials at worlds, is atop the world rankings on the men's side. Joris Daudet of France, who won the elite title, is fifth in the world. Australia's Sam Willougby took silver in 2012 and remains a medal favorite. ... Australian teammate Caroline Buchanan, who took the time trials at worlds, is just 10 points behind Pajon in second place in the world rankings. Laura Smulders of the Netherlands is back after winning bronze in London.

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Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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