Pollution, heat, humidity and a difficult course all conspire to make both the men's and women's Olympic road races potential death marches of the highest order. Add to that the fact that every country is sending their best athletes to Beijing(well, duh, it is the Olympics!) and 'epic' is the only word that comes to mind to describe the events which will unfold this weekend.
On paper, the Olympic Road Race course looks pretty darn tough. The men will climb over 11,000 feet and the women will climb over 4000 feet meaning that it is highly unlikely that a sprinter will be wearing the gold medal in either event. And the teams seem to agree with only a few of the them bringing anyone with fast twitch muscle fibers.
Actually, the course is split up into two distinct parts. The first section, which both the men and women will ride, is about 55 miles of mostly flat riding, designed by the Chinese to showcase some of their national treasures such as the Great Wall. The second part of the course is a 15-mile loop which contains about 1500' of climbing most if it coming in a 6-mile, 1250-foot climb. Following the ascent is quick down and up and then a long, gradual 8-mile descent back to the finish line. The men will complete seven laps for a total of 150 miles; the women will do two laps on the circuit for a total of 75 miles.
The US Men's team is headed by now 5-time Olympian George Hincapie who is joined by Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and Jason McCartney. George, Levi and Christian will be the designated leaders with Zabriskie and McCartney riding in a supporting role. The US Women's team includes two-time Olympians Kristin Armstrong and Dr. Christine Thorburn who will be joined by first-timer Amber Neben.
Both squads are definitely medal-capable especially if they ride as a team. It is difficult to put personal ambitions aside especially since the difficulty of the course will clearly make this a race of attrition. But, teamwork will be key especially if the heat and humidity are oppressive and the designated leaders need a lot of water to stay fresh.
In the men's race, Spain looks to be the biggest threat. They are sending a hugely-talented squad which includes Alejandro Valverde who just won the Classic San Sebastian, Tour winner Carlos Sastre, Giro winner Alberto Contador, Tour green jersey winner Oscar Friere and Sammy Sanchez. Italy always seems to ride well in big races and they can't be counted out especially with defending Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini and one-day specialist extraordinaire Davide Rebellin. The tiny country of Luxembourg looks very good with the Schleck brothers and Kim Kirchen all who rode well in the mountains of the recent Tour.
In the women's race, Germany is always powerful with defending Olympic Champion Judith Arndt and Ina Teutenberg. Holland with Marianne Vos brings a strong team as well as the Swiss and Great Britian.
The men's race is Saturday, August 9th the women's race is the next day on the 10th. Look for both competitions to be action-packed once the races hit the finishing circuits. The pollution coupled with the heat and humidity will make it prohibitive to attack before that.