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Inside Cycling, with John Wilcockson – The pros finally embrace Olympic cycling

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Aug. 14, 2008
  • Updated Aug. 15, 2008 at 4:49 AM EDT

By John Wilcockson

Beijing marked something of a turning point in Olympic cycling.

Photo: Graham Watson

World Anti Doping Agency president John Fahey said earlier this week that the Olympic movement should consider banishing cycling and weight lifting from the Games because they are sports that have doping problems. UCI president Pat McQuaid immediately shot back that no other sport is doing as much as cycling to fight the cheats, and that several major sports have been dragging their heels on anti-doping issues for years. He could also have pointed out that comparing cycling with weight lifting is a gross distortion of facts: Weight lifters have routinely used steroids for years and their international federation has turned a half-blind eye, whereas the anti-doping testing and monitoring programs in cycling make it tougher and tougher for athletes to even think about cheating.

What’s more ironic is that now is not the time to eliminate cycling from the Games. Now is the time that cycling should be further embraced by the Olympic movement — and not just because it is leading the way in the fight against doping. It’s because cycling has finally found its place as a major Olympic sport — even though it has been on the schedule ever since the first modern Olympiad in 1896.

ROAD RACES SINCE PROS BECAME OLYMPIANS




2008 Beijing
Road race: 245.19km (78.8km point to point, then seven laps of a mountainous 23.77km circuit)
Average speed: 38.362 kph
Result: Two groups of three come together in the final kilometer, with Samuel Sánchez taking the uphill sprint from Davide Rebellin and Fabian Cancellara, 0:12 ahead of a 12-man chase (that’s spread over 35 seconds by the finish and includes Levi Leipheimer in 11th and Christian Vande Velde in 17th), and 2:28 ahead of the 27-man peloton.

2004 Athens
Road race: 224.4km (17 laps of a hilly 13.2km circuit)
Average speed: 39.399 kph
Result: A two-man break (Paolo Bettini and Sergio Paulinho) finishes 0:08 ahead of a solo chaser (Axel Merckx) and 0:12 ahead of the 34-man peloton (that includes Tyler Hamilton in 18th and George Hincapie in 24th).

2000 Sydney
Road race: 239.4km (14 laps of a rolling 17.1km circuit)Average speed: 43.641 kph
Result: A three-man break (Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden) finishes 1:26 ahead of a 10-man chase group (that includes Americans George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong) and 1:38 ahead of the 60-man peloton.

1996 Atlanta
Road race: 221.85km (17 laps of a rolling 13.05km circuit)Average speed: 45.285 kph
Result: A three-man break (Pascal Richard, Rolf Sørensen and Max Sciandri) finishes 1:14 ahead of a three-man chase (American Frankie Andreu is fourth) and 1:28 ahead of six others (including Lance Armstrong in 12th) .

What stopped cycling joining the most popular disciplines at the Games was the fact that it wasn’t contested by the sport’s top athletes. Whereas track & field, swimming and gymnastics were always regarded as “amateur” sports and always saw their top stars competing at the Olympics, and so produced the highest level of competition. Cycling has always been a pro sport, and so the amateur racers who competed at the Games from 1896 through 1992 were not the very best.

The perception of cycling being a minor Olympic sport started to change at Atlanta in 1996, when the “amateur” label was first cast aside — other sports, like basketball, had already made that leap in Barcelona four years earlier. The difference in pro and amateur cycling was shown immediately on the Olympic track at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. The Russian (state-sponsored) amateurs were the hot favorites in the team pursuit, but an unlikely foursome from France, headed by two road pros who had just finished the Tour de France, Francis Moreau and Christophe Capelle, blasted them out of the water. And the points race medals went to three other road professionals, Silvio Martinello of Italy, Brian Walton of Canada and Stuart O’Grady of Australia.

In the 12 years since Atlanta, track racing has become more and more professional, as we will see this coming week when top road pros like Mark Cavendish, Brad Wiggins, Brad McGee and Mikhail Ignatiev will be among the stars at the Laoshan Velodrome. But it’s in road racing (and time trialing) that the Olympics have become a big deal.

At Atlanta ’96, the Olympic road race was something of an anomaly, with pros racing against a field that still contained a host of amateur nations. The European peloton showed little enthusiasm for the “new” event. American spectators were more enthusiastic, mainly because home fans wanted to see Lance Armstrong competing, so there was a decent crowd around the 13km circuit in suburban Buckhead. The fans were disappointed when the Texan finished only 12th (no one knew he’d be diagnosed with cancer two months later). And there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the fourth place of his U.S. teammate Frankie Andreu, nor for winner Pascal Richard — even though the Swiss had won stages of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia that year, as well as the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic.

As for the Atlanta time trial (the first since the road event was run as a 100km time trial at Los Angeles in 1932), it was raced over four laps of the road course and provided a narrow win for five-time Tour champ Miguel Induráin — but the Spanish legend’s gold medal was seen as a consolation prize after he lost his Tour crown the previous month. The U.S. fans were again disappointed that Armstrong placed “only” sixth. Armstrong was more motivated for the TT at Sydney in 2000 after he completed his second Tour victory with a decisive time trial stage win over Jan Ullrich; but both men were beaten in Sydney by Armstrong’s Russian teammate at U.S. Postal, Viatcheslav Ekimov.

The presence of the Tour’s top finishers in Sydney added to the growing interest of road cycling at the Games; but the road race itself was on such a complicated 17km circuit, with incessant turns through a park, that most of the field (including the Americans) didn’t even know that the winning break had gone up the road until they saw Ullrich and his Deutsche Telekom teammates Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden on one of the Jumbotron screens. Ullrich was a prestigious winner, but it wasn’t a prestigious race.

Four years ago, in Athens, there were much higher expectations for the men’s Olympic road race. The 13km circuit had a couple of climbs, showcased Greek monuments, including the Acropolis, and was the opening event of the Games. But few spectators showed up and the race was held in the hottest part of a broiling August day (between 12:45 and 6:30 p.m.). Half the 141-man field pulled out and the five-man Italy team managed to control all the action, to facilitate pre-race favorite Paolo Bettini’s winning breakaway (with “unknown” Portuguese rider Sergio Paulinho) on the penultimate lap.

That Olympiad’s time trial was held at the triathlon venue on a rolling 24km out-and-back course along the windswept coast south of Athens. Tyler Hamilton averaged 50 kph to defeat defending champ Ekimov by 18 seconds, with Bobby Julich taking bronze. But much of the event’s impact was lost when Hamilton tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion; and even though his B-sample could not be tested (after being stored in a freezer) and the American kept his gold medal, the incident left a bad taste.

So neither the Olympic road race nor the time trial had found their true status before these 2008 Games. But the outlook looked more promising when a much more challenging course was announced for the Beijing road races. Already, a year ago, Australian stars Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers traveled to Beijing to check out the course that would climax with seven laps of a rigorous 23.77km circuit in the mountains northwest of the Chinese capital. Through the winter, European stars like Bettini, Alejandro Valverde and Fabian Cancellara began talking about the Olympics being a season goal. And when the Astana team was not invited to the Tour, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer both targeted Beijing as a major priority. It looked like the two road events would finally attain the special status annually afforded world championships and top classics.

That assessment turned out to be true.

Beijing road race
Even though the weather conditions weren’t great — like Athens with extra humidity — last Saturday’s road race received a lot of attention, especially as it was the Games’ opening event on a course that went from Tiananmen Square to the Great Wall. It was a shame that most of the media focused on the Beijing smog — even though 15 more riders finished this race than the one in Athens (and 16 fewer dropped out). What was a shame is that the mostly uninformed reporters (the New York Times even listed the positions of the leading riders across the line each lap, even though such data is virtually meaningless in a bike race) didn’t appreciate that the final hour of the race was the most competitive and probably the most exciting in Olympic history.

What more can you say about a finale that saw the past two Tour de France champions, Carlos Sastre and Contador, setting such a ferocious pace the second-last time up the 12km stair-step climb — especially on the first 7-percent grades and the upper stretch with 8- and 10-percent pitches — that the peloton was cut in half. Contador worked so hard that he simply sat up at the top and didn’t bother to start the final lap. (Similarly, in the first half of the race, Americans Dave Zabriskie and Jason McCartney dropped out after racing themselves to exhaustion to keep the early 26-man break from gaining too much time.)

Sanchez led a strong group of top pros to the line.

Photo: Graham Watson

Going into the final lap, the race was still full of uncertainty. Only the strongest were left for this final haul up the three-part Badaling Pass, which includes two sharp 1km downhill sections and even some flats. Within five minutes of fierce attacks, only 19 riders were left in the front group, with no less than 14 nations still represented. The only teams still with two riders in the medal hunt were Australia (Evans and Rogers), Italy (Bettini and Davide Rebellin), Russia (Vladimir Karpets and Alexander Kolobnev), Spain (Valverde and Samuel Sánchez) and the U.S. (Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde).

Besides the inherent ability of all 19 riders, most of them were on great form. One week before the Olympic road race, at the Clasicá San Sebastián, five of them had been in the group that sprinted for the win: Bettini, Rebellin, Kolobnev, Valverde and Sánchez. Perhaps the Beijing winner would be one of those five. There were also a number of individuals coming off the Tour de France, or other European stage races, with great form including Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, Switzerland’s Cancellara, Denmark’s Chris Anker Sørensen and the Netherlands’ Robert Gesink.

As for the two Aussies, Evans was just recovered from a knee injury and he hadn’t raced since the Tour, while Rogers had rising form since coming off glandular fever in June — he had placed second overall at the five-day Tour of Saxony two weeks before the Olympics. So, although it was a visual surprise to see two-time Tour runner-up Evans pulling hard halfway up the Badaling climb on this final lap, it made logistical sense when you could see Rogers six wheels back waiting to make a move near the top.

Schleck animated the Olympic event.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

America’s Leipheimer and Vande Velde were also right at the front of the group, making the accelerations or going with those made by Sørensen, Sánchez and Evans. Perhaps the most telling quote after the race was that by the ultra-talented Schleck. “All of the others were just waiting. Nobody had the courage to attack.”

It didn’t look like the others were “just waiting” — though Bettini later said he made a mistake by just marking Valverde. Unfortunately for Bettini, Valverde was having trouble trying to follow all the moves that were contributing to the unremitting speed. Amazingly, this final lap of the mountainous circuit was being raced at an average of 43.044 kph (compared with the previous fastest lap of 41.1 kph).

Despite the speed, the younger of the two Schleck brothers got out of the saddle on the outside of a steep curve about 3km from the Badaling summit (about 15km from the finish) and managed to find some extra horsepower in an initial surge that only Rebellin and Rogers could go with. Sánchez then countered, and he was followed by Schleck, Rebellin, Rogers and Kolobnev.

Then, on the steepest gradients of the climb’s final kilometer, Schleck went again, and only the very motivated Rebellin (14 years older than the Luxembourg phenom) could stay with him. Rogers, who hadn’t contested a rugged race finale like this since he placed second on the Valkenburg stage of the 2006 Tour, was gapped, while Kolobnev and Sánchez tried to close. Racing doesn’t get much better than this!

It was just before the road narrowed and went through an archway in the Great Wall that Sánchez made it across to the front two, while Rogers made it back to Kolobnev. At the summit, with 12.7km to race, the three leaders were 10 seconds ahead of the two chasers, and already 26 seconds ahead of a 10-strong group made up of Belgium’s Mario Aerts, Canada’s Michael Barry, Colombia’s Santiago Botero, Cancellara, Evans, Gesink, Leipheimer, France’s Jérôme Pineau, Sørensen and a fading Valverde.

Rogers showed his power on the three-lane-wide Badaling Expressway, descending with Kolobnev and closing what was a 15-second gap with 10km to go to just three seconds at the final-kilometer archway. What was even more amazing, and added a huge element of drama to the finish, was the descent by Cancellara. The Swiss time-trial star came from 35 seconds back with 8km to go to help Rogers and Kolobnev join the three leaders as they swept though the fast downhill curve that preceded the 500-meter uphill to the line.

Perhaps Cancellara should have kept his effort going and surprised the others. Instead, he decided to catch his breath before Kolobnev attacked on the steepest part of the uphill finish. The Russian looked sure to get a medal, but after Sånchez and Rebellin came scorching past to take gold and silver respectively, Kolobnev sat up and Cancellara slipped by to earn bronze.

It was a thrilling ending to an Olympic road race that finally lived up to (even surpassed) expectations. It was a huge shame that the Chinese authorities stopped spectators from lining the Badaling Pass climb — that was a far bigger black mark against Beijing than the smoggy conditions — but the riders themselves, the pros, realized this was still a very special event. “That was an awesome race!” said Vande Velde, after crossing the line in 17th place.

Beijing time trial
Just as the Badaling Pass circuit provided the perfect terrain for a suspense-filled road race so it made the two-lap (47.3km) time trial the most challenging in Olympic history. On a day when actual wind was snapping out the red Chinese national flags dotted along the Great Wall (and not the motor-driven flags at the opening ceremony), it was soon clear that the more lightly built riders were going to have a hard time on the very exposed descent along the Badaling Expressway, even though they would have an advantage on the more sheltered slopes of the three-part climb.

The roughly 9km of actual climbing, plus the kicker before the finish line, provided a total of 1,673 feet (510 meters) of elevation gain each lap. That’s equivalent to a Cat. 2 climb at the Tour, whereas the hardest climb in a regular time trial at a grand tour (excluding hill climbs) would be a Cat. 3. That’s why this Olympic test was unique — contenders had to be constantly shifting gears (using both small and big rings) to cope with the three uphill and two downhill sections on the way up the old road to Badaling Pass, and then power their biggest gears (54×11 for Cancellara, mostly 55×11 for the others) on the 12km of downhill on the expressway.

The result was a time trial of wildly fluctuating fortunes. This was not one of those monotonous, follow-the-leader time trials, even though renowned TT specialists dominated the final standings, with Cancellara winning from Sweden’s Gustav Larsson, Leipheimer, Contador, Evans and Sánchez. Significantly, other than Larsson (who finished in the peloton), all of these men played significant roles (including two of the medalists) in the road race four days earlier.

To give a feel for how dramatically things changed throughout the time trial, I’ve calculated the exact splits for each of the four sections (two uphills and two downhills), Here they are:

Uphill 1 (10.8km)
1. Contador, 17:49 (speed 36.370 kph); 2. Larsson, 18:07; 3. Cancellara, 18:17; 4. Leipheimer, 18:19; 5. Evans, 18:24; 6. Sánchez, 18:31.

Downhill 1 (12.7km)
1. Cancellara, 12:19 (speed 61.867 kph); 2. Larsson, 12:55; 3. Tuft, 12:57; 4. Cummings, 12:59; 5. Leipheimer, 13:01; 6. Contador, 13:03.

Uphill 2 (11.1km)
1. Larsson, 18:50 (speed 35.362 kph); 2. Evans, 18:59; 3. Contador, 19:17; 4. Cancellara, 19:22; 5. Leipheimer, 19:24; 6. Sánchez, 19:25.

Downhill 2 (12.7km)
1. Cancellara, 12:13 (speed 62.373 kph); 2. Leipheimer, 12:37; 3. Clement, 12:48; 4. Larsson, 12:52; 5. Cummings, 12:55; 6. Evans, 12:57. (Contador, 13:20)

What these data show is that the bigger riders (CC-Saxo Bank teammates Cancellara and Larsson) could gain more time on the continuous downhill than the lighter riders (Astana teammates Leipheimer and Contador) could eke out on the stair-step climb. Contador rode extraordinarily well to make the first uphill at an average speed of 36.370 kph, but he was “only” 28 seconds faster than Cancellara — who took back all that time plus another 16 seconds on the Spanish climber on the first descent.

But it wasn’t just on the downhills that Cancellara won the race. On both of the 11km uphills he was two seconds faster than Leipheimer. An even bigger surprise was the climbing speed of Larsson, who used his longer legs to push a much bigger gear than the others uphill — going 10 seconds faster than Cancellara the first time up Badaling Pass and an impressive 32 seconds faster the second time.

A two-time world champion, Cancellara earns gold to boot.

Photo: Graham Watson

But by using smaller gears both uphill and down (and pedaling at an average 100 rpm cadence!), Cancellara retained more snap in his legs and was able to average an extraordinary 62.373 kph for the final 12.7km! His will to win — he was six seconds down on leader Larsson at the last time check — was also extraordinary. And though there were virtually no spectators to witness his victory, the TV cameras thankfully recorded for posterity not only his riding effort and his exhilaration at winning, but also his utter exhaustion as he lay down his white Suisse-edition Cervélo on the Chinese road, flopped himself down and leaned back against a red Chinese-patterned hoarding, removing his aero helmet, putting his hand through his long brown “Spartacus” hair and then pouring water over his head with obvious exquisite pleasure.

Yes, the pros have finally embraced the Olympic Games. Now it’s time for the Olympics to embrace them. The 2012 Games are in London where, remember, Cancellara torched the Tour de France field in last year’s prologue before a crowd of a million frenzied fans. That’s the sort of support Cancellara and company deserve. Let’s hope the Brits come through again at their Games.

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