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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
In the aftermath of the brutal 224.4km men’s Olympic road race run on the historic downtown streets of Athens on Saturday, the sentiment toward race winner Paolo Bettini was nearly universal. For a man so marked to still pull off a gold-medal victory was testament to his vast abilities on the bicycle. Outside of a stacked Spanish squad, Bettini’s name was the one most proffered when the favorites list was compiled, yet the Italian still managed to pull one of his trademark late-race escapes, earning him the first cycling gold of the 2004 Summer Games.
Bettini grabbed victory by slipping away from a heat-ravaged peloton on the 15th of 17 laps, then outsprinted fellow escapee Sergio Paulinho of Portugal on the long finishing stretch, where crowds were lined three and four deep. Next through at 0:08 was Belgian Axel Merckx, who earned himself a bronze medal after escaping late in the final lap. German Erik Zabel captured the bunch sprint for fourth, at 0:12.
“It was predictable that [Bettini] won,” said U.S. team manager Jim Ochowicz. “But that’s such a testament to the guy’s abilities. When a race is a complete lottery like this, for the favorite to still win is just a compliment to the kind of athlete he is.”
Bettini’s fellow favorites, the team from Spain, had a disastrous day. Just 5km into the first trip around the 13.2km course, reigning world champion Igor Astorloa went down in a multi-rider pile-up that also claimed Dutchman Michael Boogerd, Colombian Marlon Perez and Russian Vladimir Karpets. Neither Astarloa nor Boogered would even attempt to restart the race, and Karpets and Perez would be gone soon after.
As for the rest of Spain’s powerful team, which included Oscar Freire, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Alejandro Valverde, only Valverde would hang on to the end, limping home in 47th, 2:29 behind Bettini.
The attrition certainly did not end there. With temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, only 75 of the 144 starters survived to the end. Among the casualties was Tour de France runner up Andreas Klöden.
“I’ve done a lot of races, but that was probably the hardest I’ve ever done,” said Aussie Stuart O’Grady, who finished with the main bunch in 33rd. “I was drinking at least one bottle every lap and it still wasn’t enough.”
As for the five-man American team, Tyler Hamilton (18th), George Hincapie (24th) and Bobby Julich (28th) made it all the way to the end with the main group, while Levi Leipheimer and Jason McCartney succumbed to the hard day in the heat and DNF’d.
“I think the team worked well together. We got in some good breaks and were really aggressive,” said Hamilton, who was contesting his first race since crashing out of the Tour de France. “But you’ve got to give credit to Bettini. A lot of people were looking at him, but he proved he was the strongest guy out there.”
Michael Barry was the only member of the Canadian contingent to finish, coming home with the field in 32nd. Defending champion Jan Ullrich was 19th.
The opening half of the 5:41:44 race belonged to Swede Magnus Backstedt. The 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner went away on a solo flyer just 23km into the race, and grew his advantage to over three minutes while the peloton showed little interest. The big man would enjoy the front to himself for six laps on the circuit, which wound its way past some of Athens’ great landmarks, including the Acropolis and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The catch of Backstedt finally came courtesy of France’s Richard Virenque and Hungary’s Laszlo Bodrogi, who had been dangling between Backstedt and the peloton since the 70km mark. Once together the threesome tried to make a go of it, but with Ullrich’s German squad setting a torrid tempo at the front, what once was a three-minute cushion came tumbling down. At the end of lap 10, with 92.4km left in the race, it was 20 seconds.
Behind them attacks off the front of the peloton came from all directions. Julich, who along with Hamilton will contest Wednesday’s time trial, jumped in a move with Colombia Luis Laverde that bridged up to Backstedt, Virenque and Bodrogi. But the main field was charging hard and the race was all back together with 90km to go.
Backstedt would soon pay for his long day off the front, dropping out after the 11th trip up the Lycabettus Hill, the race’s lone real climbing test.
The next big move had a dangerous look to it, as Merckx, Laverde, Julich, Latvia’s Romans Vainsteins, Gonzalez de Galdeano, Viatcheslav Ekimov (Russia), Dutchman Max van Heeswijk and six others pulled away. But the with Germans and Aussies caught out, it was quickly reeled in.
Multiple attacks ensued, including a brief solo move by George Hincapie. But the lanky American admitted that he’s still not fully recovered after three weeks at the front of the Tour, and couldn’t make it stick.
“It was a brutal day,” he said afterward. “Very, very hot.”
Finally with a lap and a half to go, the marked man made his move. Bettini jumped early on the way up the Lycabettus climb and only the unheralded Paulinho could grab his wheel. From there they traded turns at the front, while a disorganized peloton tried in vain to bring them back. They began the bell lap with a 25-second cushion, and bumped it up to 43 seconds midway through the finisher. “At first I thought we would not make it because people always follow me,” Bettini said. “But I told Paulinho to keep going and we work hard together until the last kilometer.”
Then, as Bettini put it, the pair “would start studying each other” to decide who would take that first gold medal. Paulinho would go first, but his move lacked punch, and the two-time World Cup champion easily came by him for the win.
“Victory is always sweet,” said Bettini afterward, the gold medal and an Italian flag draped around his neck. “But this is different. Now not just people in cycling know me. The whole world knows who I am.”
1. Bettini Paolo (Italy) 5:41:44
2. Paulinho Sergio (Portugal), at 0:01
3. Merckx Axel (Belgium), at 0:08
4. Zabel Erik (Germany), at 0:12
5. Hauptman Andrej (Slovenia), at 0:12
6. Kirchen Kim (Luxembourg), at 0:12
7. Hammond Roger (Great Britain), at 0:12
8. Hoj Frank (Denmark), at 0:12
9. Arvesen Kurt-Asle (Norway), at 0:12
10. Kolobnev Alexandr (Russia), at 0:12
11. Mcewen Robbie (Australia), at 0:12
12. Zberg Markus (Switzerland), at 0:12
13. Power Ciaran (Ireland), at 0:12
14. Ljungqvist Marcus (Sweden), at 0:12
15. Dean Julian (New Zealand), at 0:12
16. Schleck Frank (Luxembourg), at 0:12
17. Van Heeswijk Max (Netherlands), at 0:12
18. Hamilton Tyler (USA), at 0:12
19. Ullrich Jan (Germany), at 0:12
20. Voeckler Thomas (France), at 0:12
21. Honchar Serhiy (Ukraine), at 0:12
22. Totschnig Georg (Austria), at 0:12
23. Pospyeyev Kyrylo (Ukraine), at 0:12
24. Hincapie George (USA), at 0:12
25. Hamburger Bo (Denmark), at 0:12
26. Valjavec Tadej (Slovenia), at 0:12
27. Ribeiro Nuno (Portugal), at 0:12
28. Julich Bobby (USA), at 0:12
29. Elmiger Martin (Switzerland), at 0:12
30. Trampusch Gerhard (Austria), at 0:12
31. Botero Echeverri Santiago (Colombia), at 0:12
32. Barry Michael (Canada), at 0:12
33. O’Grady Stuart (Australia), at 0:12
34. Etxebarria Unai (Venezuela), at 0:12
35. Vinokourov Alexandre (Kazakhstan), at 0:12
36. Laverde Jimenez Luis Felipe (Colombia), at 0:12
37. Petrov Evgeni (Russia), at 0:12
38. Nardello Daniele (Italy), at 0:19
39. Paolini Luca (Italy), at 0:19
40. Van Petegem Peter (Belgium), at 0:19
41. Dekker Erik (Netherlands), at 0:45
42. Vainsteins Romans (Latvia), at 1:19
43. Stangelj Gorazd (Slovenia), at 1:36
44. Brochard Laurent (France), at 2:29
45. Joachim Benoit (Luxembourg), at 2:29
46. Moreni Cristian (Italy), at 2:29
47. Valverde Alejandro (Spain), at 2:29
48. Virenque Richard (France), at 2:29
49. Gilbert Philippe (Begium), at 2:29
50. Murn Uros (Slovenia), at 2:29
51. Glomser Gerrit (Austria), at 3:37
52. Kroon Karsten (Netherlands), at 5:29
53. Yakovlev Sergey (Kazakhstan), at 7:04
54. Ivanov Ruslan (Moldovia), at 8:51
55. Michaelsen Lars (Denmark), at 8:51
56. Brozyna Tomasz (Poland), at 8:51
57. Tashiro Yasutaka (Japan), at 8:51
58. Andrle Rene (Czech), at 8:51
59. Lagutin Sergey (Uzbekistan), at 8:51
60. Soerensen Nicki (Denmark), at 8:51
61. Tombak Janek (Estonia), at 8:51
62. Fischer Murilo (Brazil), at 8:51
63. Svorada Jan (Czech), at 8:51
64. Voigt Jens (Germany), at 8:51
65. Sosenka Ondrej (Czech), at 8:51
66. Pugaci Igor (Moldovia), at 8:51
67. Pozzato Filippo (Italy), at 8:51
68. Popovych Yaroslav (Ukraine), at 8:51
69. Cox Ryan (South Africa), at 8:51
70. Kashechkin Andrey (Kazakhstan), at 8:51
71. Riska Martin (Slovakia), at 9:44
72. Larsson Gustav Erik (Sweden), at 9:44
73. Mizourov Andrey (Kazakhstan), at 9:44
160 starters – 73 finishers.