The word on everyone's lips about the U.S. Olympic cycling team is disappointment. No medals in the road races, just two silver medals at the track, a surprise bronze from mountain biker Susan DeMattei -- not favorite Juli Furtado -- and plenty of digs against national coaching director Chris Carmichael, culminating with star rider Rebecca Twigg going home early and blowing off yesterday's time trial.
But American cycling fans, despite the impression given from NBC's jingoistic coverage of the sport, can't be truly disappointed. Of course we would have loved to see Texan Lance Armstrong on the winners' podium at the end of Wednesday's 138-mile road race. Still, the Europeans who dominate the sport have earned admiration worldwide, and it was a thrill to see a deep field of cycling greats hammering on American roads in the first Olympic Games open to professional cyclists.
My job in Atlanta is to put out cycling bulletins on an internal Olympic news service for the thousands of journalists covering the Games. The start list for the men's road race had so many names familiar from the Tour de France and the European classics, my prerace advisory on "riders to watch" filled up three pages.
Beside this year's Tour winner Bjarne Riis and five-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain, there was Richard Virenque, who won the climber's jersey in the Tour; Laurent Jalabert, who racked up 24 victories last year; Erik Zabel, points leader in the Tour de France; Giro d'Italia winner Pavel Tonkov; world champion Abraham Olano; top sprinters Mario Cipollini and Frederic Moncassin, and on and on.
Not to mention the men who would win: Gold medalist Pascal Richard of Switzerland, who had outsprinted Armstrong to win the Liege-Bastogne-Liege World Cup event in April; silver medalist Rolf Sorenson of Denmark, a Tour de France stage winner; and bronze medalist Maximilian Sciandri of Great Britain, a Motorola teammate of U.S. riders Armstrong, Frankie Andreu, George Hincapie and Greg Randolph.
When Armstrong attacked in the 14th of 17 laps, fans' hearts undoubtedly were racing nearly as fast as his. But the real suspense began after Richard pulled Armstrong back in the next lap and the winning break made its move. Andreu tried to bridge the gap, and for the final two laps, about 16 miles, he fought alone, staying almost evenly between the breakaway and a chase group that included Armstrong, about 20 seconds down, 20 seconds up. In the chase, the riders would not cooperate to get anyone up the road.
Andreu said after the race that when the breakaway went, "I said to Lance, 'Do you want to bridge?' And he said, 'I'm pretty dead.' ... That's when I went, with two laps to go. ... At that point Lance was kind of knackered. ... In the beginning I thought I might catch them, but then I saw that I wasn't gaining any time. ... When I went, I went thinking I'd bridge the gap alone, people would chase, and Lance would get on and get a free ride" up to the breakaway.
"I was dying," Andreu said. "It's hard by yourself. ... Those last 2 kilometers were forever. I wasn't pedaling the bike; I was more like pumping the bike to get up that hill."
By the time the sprint for the medals was over and Andreu approached the finish line, Virenque was hot on his tail. Andreu wasn't about to give an inch after working so hard. "I just threw the bike across," he said. "I got him by a throw of the bike." Both Andreu and Virenque were given the same time of 4 hours, 55 minutes, 10 seconds -- 1:14 behind the winner. Armstrong was 12th, 1:29 back.
Andreu bristled at the suggestion that he's in line to dethrone Armstrong as America's best road cyclist. Andreu was overall winner of the U.S. Olympic trials, from which Armstrong was exempt by virtue of his top-15 world ranking. Andreu was the only American to finish the Tour de France, after Armstrong withdrew with a strep infection and bronchitis. And Andreu was the first American over the line Wednesday, despite Team USA's insistence that everyone would be riding in support of Armstrong.
"What are you getting at?" Andreu shot back at the reporter who listed Andreu's successes. "I am not a better rider than Lance." Because Amstrong was marked as a medal contender, Andreu said, "I had much more freedom than Lance did" to attack without sparking an energy-consuming counterattack.. "Lance takes two pedal strokes and guys get all over him."
TV viewers may have wondered why silver medalist Sorenson sat up before the finish line. He said after the race that he launched his sprint from behind third-place finisher Sciandri, who jumped early, about 700 or 800 meters from the finish, and Sorenson believed "until the last few meters" that he could outsprint Richard. When he got past Sciandri but then saw Richard win, he apparently didn't realize how close behind Sciandri was, and he sat up and pounded his handlebar in frustration at missing the gold. Sciandri finished 2 seconds behind Richard and Sorenson.
The Americans had lamented that the course was relatively
flat, saying a bigger hill would favor Armstrong. But Andreu pinpointed why the
course made for great racing. "A lot of times the organizers try to make the
course so hard it tears apart the riders," he said. "Instead, the riders in this
race tore apart each other."
At Stone Mountain Velodrome outside Atlanta, we heard the French and Italian national anthems so often we almost knew them by heart. For Italy, which won gold medals in three of the eight track cycling events, the winning ticket was the "Superman" riding position -- arms outstretched in front, an aerodynamic innovation introduced by former world hour-record holder Graeme Obree of Great Britain.
After the track's inaugural competition in October, many
athletes said the treated wooden surface was sticky and slow. But Italy's Andrea
Collinelli set a world record in the men's individual pursuit on the first day
of Olympic competition, and Olympic records were broken in five other events.
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