LONDON: Defending Olympic champion Maris Strombergs of Latvia kept his head cool to ease into the semifinals of the Olympics BMX competition Thursday after escaping an avalanche of crashes on the challenging course at the London Velopark.
Strombergs was among eight riders who advanced after three qualifying runs while world champion Sam Willoughby of Australia had to complete two more runs before sealing his spot in the semis.
On a hot, humid day, Strombergs said he struggled during the first two runs before winning the third to qualify.
"It's hard to stay focused," Strombergs said. "To be honest, I never thought it was going to be that hard to come in as an Olympic champion. It's a lot of pressure and when you start thinking about it, it's really hard to focus on yourself."
Raymon Van der Biezen of the Netherlands, who posted the best time of the seeding runs, continued his domination, progressing with three consecutive wins.
Van der Biezen's simple strategy to come ahead out of the first banked corner to avoid traffic at the rear of the pack has been efficient so far. Chasing his first major win in London, the bold Dutchman trained on a similar course on the Netherlands after his cycling federation built a replica of the London track.
"I've trained on it a thousands of times, as much as I could," Van der Biezen said. "The layout is the same but the jumps are different. We have a good track to train and it's a thing many people don't have. I know what I'm capable of, I just need to be there at the right time, as I am now."
Willoughby secured his spot in the semis with a second-place finish in the fourth run. He didn't take any risks in the final run to avoid a possible crash.
"I made a couple of mistakes early but I'm still pretty safe," Willoughby said. "I did one extra, so I'm fine, it's not a big deal."
Time trial world champion Connor Fields of the United States was unbeaten after three runs and also gained a direct qualification for the next round.
The London course, with its big jumps and tight corners, has proved to be one of the most difficult in the world with more than 20 crashes on Thursday.
"I'm not surprised by the crashes," Van der Biezen said. "We are racing so close to each other. I'm just glad that I was able to pull off in the first half of the track to avoid the crashes."
Two riders hit the ground during the first run of the day before seven out of the eight competitors racing in the third heat went down.
Marc Willers of New Zealand was the only one to escape the massive pile-up and qualified ahead of former world champion Joris Daudet of France.
"I was lucky enough that nearly all the others crashed," said Daudet after slightly injuring his right knee. "The course is difficult and there are a lot of riders who are making stupid moves just because this is the Olympics. You need to deal with all those crashes, it's part of this sport and that makes the beauty of it."
Quentin Caleyron, who battled during five heats to qualify, did not share his French teammate's views.
"I disagree with the idea that this sport is beautiful because of the crashes," Caleyron said. "People should not come and see us for that, we are a proper sport, very competitive."
Home favorite Liam Phillips of Britain received big cheers from the crowd after finishing second in his heat behind Fields.
"It's just survival, it's getting to that final," said Phillips, who broke a collarbone earlier this season. "Any one of the eight riders that make that final tomorrow have got a chance to step on the top of the podium."
Both the men's and women's semifinals will be held on Friday, with the eight best riders qualifying for the final to be run later that day.