HADLEIGH, England (AP) -- Jaroslav Kulhavy had been very discreet so far this season. But after months spent in the shadow of his rivals, his game of hide-and-seek was over.
Without a single world cup win this season, the world champion was not expected to battle with the best in the English countryside.
But after pre-race favorite Julien Absalon of France saw his hopes vanish with a puncture, Kulhavy produced an impressive display of strength and tactical awareness, well-timing his final move to claim the Olympic gold medal in the mountain bike race of the London Games on Sunday.
"Jaroslav, I really didn't count on him," Schurter said. "He's not been so strong this whole season, but today he was very strong and he deserved it."
Kulhavy, whose sole objective this season was the Olympic gold, put his hands on his head as if he couldn't believe he had won. He then wore a Czech flag like a cape while Schurter, a bronze medalist in Beijing four years ago, collapsed to the ground totally spent after crossing the line.
"It was really hard. We went full gas all day. I gave everything, all my energy," Kulhavy said. "This was so important for me this year. I've now won everything, the World Cup, the world championship and now the Olympic title."
Having spent the whole race taking huge turns at the front, Schurter was clearly disappointed by his second-place finish.
"It's hard to lose the race so close," the former world champion said. "It was a big goal for me to win here. Jaroslav was just a bit stronger."
On the punchy course featuring short but steep climbs and several technical sectors, all pre-race favorites got off to a strong start, with Schurter leading the pack ahead of two-time defending champion Absalon.
But Absalon's hopes of retaining his title were dashed shortly afterwards by a puncture. The Frenchman said he probably started the race with a flat and that his tire deflated progressively.
Absalon was dropped by his main rivals and was already trailing the leading group by 54 seconds after the first of seven 4.7-kilometer laps.
Absalon, who won gold medals in Athens and Beijing, retired in the second lap.
"After being an Olympic champion, there was no point fighting for a 10th-place finish," Absalon said
At the front of the pack, Schurter rode an aggressive race as only two riders, Kulhavy and Fontana, were able to follow his frenetic pace. The leading trio started to work together to distance the rest of the field, building a gap of 10 seconds after the second lap.
Those five riders increased the gap between themselves and the rest of the field, with their advantage reaching 20 seconds at the end of the lap as Schurter went to the front to set the pace.
Kulhavy attacked to open a small gap during the fifth lap, but Schurter leaped onto his wheel. Sanders and Hermida then struggled to keep the pace in the sixth lap as Schurter, Kulhavy and Fontana set a faster tempo.
Kulhavy attacked early in the final lap and tried again in a steep ascent, but Schurter was able to respond. Fontana, who broke his saddle in the final lap, was the first to crack while Schurter and Kulhavy battled until the final sprint.
"In the last lap I slowed down as I felt the rim touching the ground so I was afraid of a flat tire," Fontana said. "I fought for the third place and I am satisfied with the bronze medal. The two guys ahead of me went really fast, they were better than me so credit to them."