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August 15/04 4:13 am - Olympic Men's Road Race: Story


Posted by Editoress on 08/15/04
 

Paolo Bettini (Italy), everyone's favourite for the men's road race, lived up to his advance billing by taking the first cycling gold medal awarded at the Athens Olympics on Saturday. Unheralded Sergio Paulinho of Portugal, a 24 year old second year pro with Portuguese squad LA Pecol took silver, and Belgian Axel Merckx the bronze. Michael Barry was the only Canadian to finish, in 32nd place. Eric Wohlberg abandoned on the 11th lap, and Gord Fraser managed to stay with the main group until the final 35 kilometres. Both were felled by the searing heat, as was nearly half the 144 rider field.

The course was laid out through the centre of Athens, including a gradual climb on a cobbled section around the base of the famous Acropolis towards the end of the 13.1 kilometre lap, and an earlier, tougher switchback climb up Lycabettus Hill. Besides the cobbles and the heat (which topped 40C on some open sections where the sun reflected off the light coloured rock), there was a slippery sealing on the surface of the road in certain sections, which caused a crash two kilometres into the race, taking down world champion Igor Astarloa (Spain), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Spain) and Michael Boogerd (Netherlands). Astarloa had to abandon almost immediately.

Magnus Backstedt (Sweden) got the action underway when he attacked lap two. The big Swedish rider was out on his own for a long time, gradually increasing his lead to nearly four minutes. 70 kilometres into the race Richard Virenque (France) took up chase, followed by Laszlo Bodrogi (Hungary). The duo caught Backstedt shortly before the halfway point, with the gap to peloton down to 1:50. Germany upped pace and sent Andreas Kloden off for a flyer on lap 10. Gap was dropping steadily, down to one minute with 7 laps to go. Kloden abandoned shortly after his attack, suffering from the heat. Surges were splitting the peloton, and the heat was crippling.

George Totschnig (Austria) attacked on the climb with laps 7 to go, with a small group coming across to him - the first serious break of the race. Cristian Moreni (Italy), Andrey Mizourov (Kazakhstan), Roman Vainsteins (Latvia), Bobby Julich (USA), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Max Van Heeswijk (Netherlands), Unai Etxebarria (Venezuela) and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Spain) all made the front group. The favourites, including Bettini and defending champion Jan Ullrich (Germany) knew this one was important and their teams drove the chase.

With five and a half laps to go, the lead had reorganized to Moreni, Etxebarria, Martin Elmiger (Switzerland), Robbie McEwen (Australia), Ciaran Power (Ireland) and Ryan Cox (South Africa), with the peloton (down to approximately 50 riders) at one minute. Spain wasn't represented in the lead group and took up the chase, with the break being reeled in with just over three laps remaining. An inevitable counterattack immediately took place, but it was never allowed to get more than 15 seconds clear.

As everyone mentally sat up, Bettini made his move, on the cobbled climb past the Acropolis (28 kilometres to go). This was a dangerous move, and the other top riders all responded, resulting in a group of roughly 20 at the front - Michael Barry was not one of them. George Hincapie (USA) attacked out of this group and was chased down, and then Bettini launched a well timed effort over the tougher Lycabettus Hill climb, and only Paulinho could get across to him.

"When Bettini attacked, everyone's tongue was on their top tubes, suffering." said Julich. "He just rode everyone off his wheel.  He was riding at a totally different level today. He was definately the most deserving rider to win. I knew he was ready.  He has lost the last couple world cups by half a wheel and he is riding very strong right now."

Tyler Hamilton (USA) agreed, commenting "When Bettini went, he went on a hill.  There was hesitation behind and nobody organized a chase; the Germans looked at the Spanish, the Spanish looked at the Belgians and the Belgians looked at us (USA) . . . and nobody took up the chase. When you give somebody like him (Bettini) 20 seconds, that's it."

The Italian team covered all attempts to bridge up, but Bettini was also just too strong to be caught, and dropped Paulinho on the final Lycabettus Hill climb, however, the young Portugese rider managed to struggle back up on the descent. The pair then worked together until the final kilometre, when they started to play a cat and mouse game. Paulinho started the sprint, 250 metres out, but Bettini easily came by, and the Portugese rider didn't even attempt to get on his wheel.

Behind, Barry made a solo effort with just over six kilometres to go, and then could not hang onto the wheel of Merckx as he came flying by on a counter attack. Erik Zabel took the field sprint for fourth.

"I don't have any regrets with my ride. I attacked in the final kilometres through the cobblestones. I made my attempt. Axel (Merckx) came by me moving about 2 kmph faster, I just could not hold onto his wheel. But, I was in the hunt for a medal there for a while."

After the race, all three medal winners reflected on their race.

Bettini "" I dedicate my victory to my daughter, who was watching at home on TV."

Re: Any special preparation?

"Not today.  I just tried to be concentrated.  I ate a normal breakfast. I just tried to do everything I normally would do before a big race."

On the final kilometres with Paulinho:

"We were looking back to see how far in front we were.  I said to Sergio (Paulinho).. We will wait until the last kilometre.. We will work together until then. In the last kilometre, we studied each other and I knew if I looked back, he would attack.  So I just had to go in my own time"

re: What does this victory mean?

"Victory is always sweet.  But now it is the Olympics, not just the cycling world will know me.  Now the whole world will know me"

re: Regret that Lance Armstrong is not here?

"Lance just likes to win the Tour. We have known for a long time that Lance Armstrong would not be here.  Still, there were a lot of good riders here today".

Sergio Paulinho

He was totally overwhelmed with the race and winning the silver medal, and almost could not talk.

"This is so unbelievable, so unexpected.  Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to win an Olympic medal"

Axel Merckx

Commenting on the inevitable comparisons to father Eddy Merckx

"I am Axel, not my father.  It was my main goal this year (the Olympics)  "I was very lucky to make the move at the right time"

(His father was up above the finish working for Belgian TV. When Axel crossed the line Eddy Merckx was standing up with his arms in the air.)

Race Notes:

- the Canadians yo-yoed in the field on the climb, sometimes at the front, but gradually sliding back as the race wore on. Fraser was one of the last ten or so riders dropped from the race. Wohlberg, along with a number of other time trial competitors (including defacto world champion Michael Rogers) dropped out by approximately the half to two-thirds point, probably partially to save their energy for Wednesday.

- Access (to riders) is proving to be the biggest bugbear of the Games. Cycling press (and the UCI media liasion, Enrico Carpani), are used to being able to mix with the riders both pre and post race, and photographers are used to being being able to go pretty much anywhere they want.

However, as we are constantly reminded "this is the Olympics". There is no access to the barricaded course - police with machine guns will immediately pounce on you. We have a few photo zones, but they are also behind the barricades, which sort of defeats the purpose... There are no photo shuttles (usually there are vehicles that constantly circulate the course, and photographers flag them down to be transported to different areas). Here, you use the subway and walk/run everywhere. To enter the finish area, you must everytime go through security screening - x-ray and metal detector. You are not allowed to speak to or access the riders before the race (we kept sneaking in, and the security kept grabbing us and throwing us out), and after the race there is an area called the 'Mix Zone' where every TV, radio and print outlet stands and screams at the riders, trying to attract their attention and get them to come over and talk. When they go to the team pit row (where each team has a tent, and you can usually talk to them after (or during if they abandon), you are denied entry. Of course, media are permanently denied entry to the Village. Veterans agree that this is even worse than usual, partially due to the (somewhat justifiable) security paranoia. We have discovered one technique that sometimes works; refuse to budget and argue with them if you get into a restricted area, and eventually they might throw up their hands and leave you there (however, if they summon a guy with a machine gun, then you capitulate and immediately start working on your next attempt).

TV coverage for the print journalists in the media centres has also been worse than the usual blanket raw feed, with almost no indication of who is in the lead, what point we are at in the race, etc.

The other big problem is that there is only dial up access at the cycling venue media centres, which may work for writers, but is ridiculous for photographers trying to transmit photos. In fact, there is only dial up everywhere, including the MPC (Main Press Centre), however, Kodak (who are the official Olympic partner) have set up wireless highspeed in their lounge in the MPC, so everyone crowds in there, or finds an internet cafe. Blessed be the name of Kodak, amen...

On the other hand, everyone is very friendly, and the transportation does run pretty much on time.

So, when anyone asks us "isn't it exciting to be covering the Olympics?", most of us roll our eyes. Yesterday, my day began at 7:00 am, and ended at 2:00 am, when I finally just went to bed (still without absolutely everything finished).

 


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