LONDON (AP) -- After the British ruled the Olympic track cycling schedule, the once-dominant French team was left to question just about everything in its cycling program.
Perhaps the answer to its struggles lies on the rugged terrain of Hadleigh Farm, where two of the best cyclists from France will perform this weekend.
Julie Bresset is among the favorites in the women's mountain bike race on Saturday, and Julien Absalon will attempt to become a three-time gold medalist when the men compete Sunday, the final day of competition at the London Olympics.
Both eschewed a life on the track for the life of a mountain biker.
"In Athens, I was very young, and it was the start of my dominance in the discipline," Absalon said. "In Beijing, I was the hot favorite and I had to face a lot of stress and expectations.
"I've come here more relaxed, I've got more experience, I'm the only one to have already won two gold medals, and this takes some pressure off of me. One medal here would be just a bonus."
It would mean plenty to France, though. The team managed only three silver medals on the track - a precipitous fall from the four gold medals won at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Mountain biking is still a relatively new discipline, born in the 1980s in the United States but embraced over the past 20 years by European riders. They're the ones who have best taken hold of the sport, shutting the U.S. team out of the medals ever since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Absalon has been a big part of it.
While other youngsters grow up dreaming of Tour de France triumphs, the rider from Remiront, near the German border, gravitated toward off-road racing. And while he would probably equate himself just fine on the road, he'd rather cover the dusty paths and gnarly boulders of a cross-country course.
Absalon is quick to concede things won't be as easy as in Beijing, when he validated his status as the overwhelming favorite by defeating teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud, Swiss star Nino Schurter and the rest of the field at the Laoshan Mountain Bike Course.
Peraud is back to improve upon his silver medal, and Schurter is arguably the favorite after ripping off four World Cup wins this season. South Africa's Burry Stander, Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Manuel Fumic of Germany also should figure into the race.
"I've proven that I'm one of those guys that can get a medal," Fumic said, "but one little mistake and you're out of the race, so everything is really close."
That could be said of the women's race, too.
Sabine Spitz of Germany is the defending champion, but her best finish this season was sixth at Val d'Isere. Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa of Norway, the gold medalist in Athens, is back after scoring a pair of World Cup wins this year, and American rider Georgia Gould will also be in contention.
The Olympic course is a man-made, 5-kilometer track built at Hadleigh Farm, and overlooks an estuary of the Thames in Essex, east of London. The 700-acre farm is owned by the Salvation Army as a working, educational farm, and adjoins the 13th-century Hadleigh Castle of King Henry III.
Unlike the heavily wooded course in Beijing, the course in Essex is mostly wide open, though it has several short climbs and a technical section built by hauling in massive boulders.
"The course is in great shape. It's cool," said Todd Wells of the U.S. "I know with the area they didn't have many natural rocks and features like that, and I think they did a great job bringing in the rocks and making them challenging, yet still cross-country mountain bike racing."
Each race will last about 90 minutes, nearly 30 minutes shorter than Beijing. The number of laps will be announced by the judges on race day, depending on the track conditions.