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.
Things could not have started any better for the Slipstream/Chipotle team at the Giro d'Italia when they won the opening 23km team time trial to put Christian Vandevelde into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey. It was a stunning effort made all the more exceptional by the fact that they bested every Pro Tour team, most with budgets two to three times that of the upstart American squad.
To be sure, Slipstream targeted this stage from the outset and well they should. With ace time trialists in Dave Zabriskie, David Millar and Christian Vandevelde you play to your strengths. Ryder Hesjedal and Magnus Backstedt can also turn the cranks pretty well which is critical since it is a team time trial. Acknowledging that Vandevelde was the strongest rider on the squad that day, the team elected to have him cross the finish line first. When their time edged the powerful CSC formation by six seconds and High Road Sports finished a further one second back, the celebrations began.
It has been 20 years since an American wore the pink jersey in the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten became the first, and still only, US rider to win Italy's national race. Christian was quick to point out that he isn't aiming to follow in Hapmsten's footsteps, but Slipstream has a number of cards to play with sprinters Julian Dean and Chris Sutton and opportunists like Backstedt, Vandevelde and Millar all going for stage wins.
Unfortunately, a crash on some railroad tracks on stage 2 took out the teams' best time trialist, Dave Zabriskie. With a fractured L1 vertebrae, he is headed home, but he was instrumental in winning the team time trial so it is a bittersweet moment. Can the "Argyle Armada" bring home some more glory? They are off to a great start and a positive attitude is a huge factor in a three-week race. Bravo!