Kristin Armstrong is in her last week of competitive bike racing at an international level. She's at the World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland finishing up a career that has had its share of successes. As we have seen with athletes like Brett Favre, sometimes it is hard to retire, but Kristin is calling it quits at the international level and looking to spend as much time as possible back home in Idaho.
Kristin came to cycling from triathlons at the turn of the millenium. It was clear she was strong on the bike, but like most riders crossing over from tri, she needed to learn some bike handling skills to be able to translate her talent to the top level of women's racing. Luckily, Kristin was a quick study. So quick in fact that she earned a spot on the 2004 Athens Olympic Team by winning the US Olympic Trials Road Race, beating Christine Thorburn in a two-up sprint.
In Athens, Kristin had an OK ride in the road race. She was America's top finisher in 8th, but she was a long way from the medal podium. It was in 2005, that Kristin started showing her dominance in the event that would eventually lead to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing. To be sure, Kristin was an excellent stage racers notching wins in top US races as Nature Valley Grand Prix, Tour de Toona and Tour of the Gila.
But, was in the time trials, that Kristin started winning World Championship medals. A bronze in 2005 was followed by gold in 2006 and a silver in 2007. Clearly, Kristin was one of the favorites for the gold in Beijing. Kristin spent a year in serious preparation for the event and it paid off as she dominated the Olympic Time Trial and won the race.
After an Olympic gold medal and a World Championship gold medal Kristin had very little left to prove, which probably factored into her decision to hang up her cleats. But, what makes her a true champion is that in her last time trial at the international level, she took the gold medal at the World Championships by absolutely crushing her competition, winning by almost a minute. That's the way a true champion ends a career, going out on top and leaving no doubts as to who was the best on that day.
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.