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By Fred Dreier
On a sweltering day that saw many riders succumb to Beijing’s heat and humidity, Samuel Sanchez timed a last-minute acceleration to perfection to win the 2008 Olympic men’s road race. The Spanish climber crossed the finish line beneath China’s Great Wall just inches ahead of Italian Davide Rebellin. Swiss world time-trial champ Fabian Cancellara, who was riding without any teammates, collected the bronze.
“It’s like a dream. I still can’t believe I’ve just won the gold medal,” Sanchez said after winning the 245.4km race. “[The team] were all at the front working as a unit today. It’s like a victory for all of us.”
Indeed, Sanchez took the win after the heavily favored Spanish team took control of the race in its waning kilometers. Recently crowned Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, ’08 Giro champ Alberto Contador and Sanchez set a blistering tempo on the sixth of seven ascents of the 330-meter Badaling Pass climb to set up their ace, Alejandro Valverde, who was hoping to topple ’04 Olympic champ Paolo Bettini. The show of force whittled down the peloton to a select group of the world’s best riders.
But when Valverde was unable to match the accelerations of Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck on the final climb up Badaling, Sanchez became Spain’s main man. The thin climber, who finished seventh at this year’s Tour de France, matched Schleck on the climb and then attacked at the perfect point for the victory.
“There were a lot of other big favorites like Valverde and Bettini, and others, like me and Rebellin, who could also hope to spring a surprise,” added Sanchez. “I am surprised.”
A muggy day in Beijing
Neither Mother Nature nor Beijing’s infamous brown cloud offered any respite to the peloton. Riders awoke early on Saturday to find Beijing socked in by a thicker-than-normal cloud of humidity and air pollution. And temperatures began rising as soon as the morning sun peaked over the horizon. The thermometer stuck in the mid-80’s by midmorning, with the air damp and heavy with moisture.
“Nobody likes to have really hard conditions like this — it would be nice if it was 70 degrees with no wind and some sun,” said American David Zabriskie. “We all have to deal with it.”
Reports spread through the press ranks that the International Olympic Committee was considering bumping back the 11 a.m. starting time to 1:30, or postponing the race until Sunday due to the conditions. But team buses filed into the starting complex at Beijing’s Yongdingmen Gate on time. And the 143 riders, clad brightly in national team colors, rolled out promptly on time.
The 245.4km route began at Yongdingmen Gate in north Beijing and finished at the Juyongguan Pass area, just beneath a section of China’s famed Great Wall. Officials from the Chinese government, the IOC and the UCI began organizing the route in 2001 to create a scenic yet challenging course that passed by urban Beijing’s cultural monuments.
“We thought the course could represent the past and the present of Beijing,” said Tian Junrong, China’s deputy manager of the road cycling venue. “The UCI and BOCOG [China’s Olympic committee] all wanted the race to represent the beauty of Beijing through the cycling events.”
Indeed, the route opened with nearly 80km of flat riding, rolling past such landmarks as Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven before heading southeast of town. Once reaching Juyongguan, the closest sector of China’s most famous landmark to Beijing, the riders faced seven 23.8km loops of the Badaling Pass circuit. Each circuit included the 12.4km ascent of the 330-meter-high pass, followed by a gradual descent back to the start/finish.
Early going tough for USA
The first true surge of the day produced the longest breakaway, as Patricio Almonacid of Chile and Bolivia’s only rider, Horacio Gallardo, attacked as soon as the group got rolling. The two poured on the gas through the streets of Beijing as the peloton rolled along at parade pace. After 40km of racing, the two had built up a whopping 14-minute lead.
Small surges at the front of the peloton kept the group moving along, but many riders were content to roll past Beijing’s landmarks at an easy pace. So when a group of 25 riders attacked and gained a substantial gap on the group at kilometer 50, more than a few teams found themselves caught out. The strongest team with no riders present in the group was the United States.
“It was definitely our fault, we weren’t watching for that,” said Jason McCartney. “We were back at the car getting bottles and ice and we should have had someone in there.”
Present in the group of 25 was a handful of serious threats, including Sastre (Spain), Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), Jens Voigt and Bert Grabsch (Germany), Roman Kreuziger (Ukraine), Simon Gerrans (Australia), Marzio Bruseghin (Italy) and Ryder Hesjedal (Canada).
The move forced the United States to put Zabriskie on the front, and the Utah resident and South African Robbie Hunter pulled the peloton for much of the 50 flat kilometers from Beijing to the base of the Badaling climb. The two saw their chances at finishing the race end once the peloton accelerate up the climb for the first of seven laps.
“There was just no recovery,” Zabriskie said.
A battle of attrition
With Sastre and Hesjedal pushing the pace on the climb up Badaling, the lead group of 25 quickly gobbled up the two South American riders, and gained two minutes’ advantage on the peloton. McCartney and Russia’s Vladimir Efimkin rode at the head of the peloton, but after pulling for two laps they were unable to chip away at the gap. By the beginning of the third lap, the lead group had a five-minute advantage.
“Guys [in the break] decided to ride and see what could happen,” said Hesjedal. “It was good to be in that position, to be part of the race.”
But signs of wear began to show on lap four, and the group crumbled quickly. By the fifth lap surges within the peloton had spat out German favorite Stefan Schumacher, and brought back the break.
So after the Spanish team grabbed the front of the race on the penultimate lap, many thought the time had come for Valverde — winner of July’s Clasica San Sebastian — to spring to victory. Surviving the Spanish onslaught were Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Cadel Evans (Australia), Cancellara, Rebellin, Bettini and Alexander Kolobnev of Russia, among others.
But instead it was the younger Schleck brother, Andy, who played his cards near the summit on the final climb. The skinny Luxembourger sped away from the field with Sanchez and Rebellin in tow, trailed by Rogers and Kolobnev.
“It was the only chance I have, all of the others were just waiting. Nobody had the courage to attack,” Schleck said.
The three began the long descent to the finish line nursing a 15-second advantage on the two riders, with a group containing Cancellara, the two Americans and Evans riding 30 seconds in arrears.
The move appeared to be the winning one, as the three maintained their advantage inside the final 5km. But Cancellara, the reigning time trial world champ, had other ideas. The big Swiss rider sped away from the second chase group on the gradual descent, picked up Rogers and Kolobnev and bridged up to the three leaders. The show of sheer power caught Schleck, Sanchez and Rebellin by surprise.
“I thought we would stay to the end — but the motorbike did not give us any information. When I saw [Cancellara] I thought it cannot be true,” said Schleck, who rides alongside the Swiss on Team CSC-Saxo Bank. “Of course it came back because of him. Maybe I am a little bit angry with him right now, but he’s still my friend.”
The six riders sped through a tollbooth, made a sharp right turn and began the final 500-meter uphill push to the finish. Sanchez allowed Kolobnev and Rebellin to lead out the sprint, then put in a late dig. His patience and skill paid off in gold.
At the post-race press conference, Sanchez reveled in being the latest Spaniard to record a major victory in 2008. With tennis player Rafael Nadal winning Wimbledon, mountain biker Marga Fullana claiming the world championships, Valverde taking cycling’s biggest one-day races and Sastre winning the Tour, 2008 is proving to be the year of Spain.
“We have a great generation of athletes who work hard, but who also get a lot of support from the government,” said Sanchez. “I hope it’s the first of many medals for the Spanish here.”
2008 Olympic Road Race – Beijing, China
1. Samuel Sanchez (Spain), 245km in 6:23:49 (38.4kph)
2. Davide Rebellin (Italy), same time
3. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), s.t.
4. Alexander Kolobnev (Russia), s.t.
5. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg), s.t.
6. Michael Rogers (Australia), s.t.
7. Santiago Botero (Colombia), s.t.
8. Mario Aerts (Belgium), at 0:12
9. Michael Barry (Canada), at 0:16
10. Robert Gesink (Netherlands), at 0:18
11. Levi Leipheimer (United States), at 0:20
12. Chris Anker Soerensen (Denmark), at 0:22
13. Alejandro Valverde (Spain), at 0:22
14. Jérôme Pineau (France), at 0:22
15. Cadel Evans (Australia), at 0:22
16. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Poland), at 0:22
17. Christian Vande Velde (United States), at 0:30
18. Paolo Bettini (Italy), at 0:35
19. Vladimir Karpets (Russia), at 0:1:10
20. Murilo Fischer (Brazil), at 2:28
21. Fabian Wegmann (Germany), at 2:28
22. Erik Hoffmann (Namibia), at 2:28
23. Christian Pfannberger (Austria), at 2:28
24. Gustav Larsson (Sweden), at 2:28
25. Nicki Sorensen (Denmark), at 2:28
26. Radoslav Rogina (Croatia), at 2:28
27. John Augustyn (South Africa), at 2:28
28. Nuno Ribeiro (Portugal), at 2:28
29. Ignat as Konovalovas (Lithuania), at 2:28
30. Jackson Jesus Rodriguez Ortiz (Venezuala), at 2:28
31. Mat t Lloyd (Australia), at 2:28
32. Kurt Asle Arvesen (Norway), at 2:28
33. Kanstantsin Siutsou (Belarus), at 2:28
34. Remi Pauriol (France), at 2:28
35. Tadej Valjavec (Slovenia), at 2:28
36. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukraine), at 2:28
37. Simon Gerrans (Australia), at 2:28
38. Thomas Lofqvist (Sweden), at 2:36
39. Thomas Rohregger (Austria), at 2:36
40. George Hincapie (United States), at 2:36
41. José Serpa (Colombia), at 2:38
42. Johan Vansummeren (Belgium), at 2:38
43. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg), at 2:38
44. Andrey Mizurov (Kazakhstan), at 2:38
45. Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic), at 2:46
46. Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), at 2:51
47. Moises Aldape Chavez (Mexico), at 4:19
48. Rein Taaramae (Estonia), at 7:00
49. Carlos Sastre (Spain), at 7:17
50. Franco Pellizotti (Italy), at 7:17
51. Sergey Lagutin (Uzbekistan), at 7:17
52. Hossein Askari (Iran), at 10:33
53. Ruslan Pidgornyy (Ukraine), at 10:33
54. Julian Dean (New Zealand), at 10:37
55. Jacek Tadeusz Morajko (Poland), at 10:37
56. Ryder Hesjedal (Canada), at 10:37
57. Mat ija Kvasina (Croatia), at 10:37
58. Marcus Ljungqvist (Sweden), at 10:37
59. Svein Tuft (Canada), at 10:37
60. Denis Menshov (Russia), at 10:37
61. Jurij Golcer (Slovenia), at 10:37
62. Jan Valach (Slovakia), at 10:37
63. Marzio Bruseghin (Italy), at 10:37
64. Nicholas Roche (Ireland), at 10:37
65. Laurens Dam Ten (Netherlands), at 10:37
66. Peter Kusztor (Hungary), at 11:55
67. Ivan Stevic (Serbia), at 11:55
68. Gat is Smukulis (Latvia), at 12:59
69. Tanel Kangert (Estonia), at 12:59
70. Gonzalo Garrido (Chile), at 12:59
71. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), at 12:59
72. Andre Cardoso (Portugal), at 15:53
73. Aliaksandr Kuchynski (Belarus), at 15:53
74. Dainius Kairelis (Lithuania), at 15:53
75. Petr Bencik (Czech Republic), at 15:53
76. Alexandr Pliuschin (Moldovia), at 15:53
77. Denys Kostyuk (Ukraine), at 15:53
78. Sergey Ivanov (Russia), at 15:53
79. Ghader Mizbani (Iran), at 15:53
80. David George (South Africa), at 15:53
81. Philip Deignan (Ireland), at 15:53
82. Glen Chadwick (New Zealand), at 15:53
83. Aliaksandr Usau (Belarus), at 26:10
84. Tomasz Marczynski (Poland), at 26:10
85. Nebojsa Jovanovic (Serbia), at 26:10
86. Takashi Miyazawa (Japan), at 31:35
87. Rafaa Chtioui (Tunisia), at 39:15
88. Park Sungbaek (South Korea), at 39:15
89. Kin San Wu (Hong Kong), at 42:08
90. Luciano Mendonca (Brazil), at 44:38
Did Not Finish
Alberto Contador (Spain)
Simon Spilak (Slovenia)
Jens Voigt (Germany)
Pierrick Fedrigo (France)
Cyril Dessel (France)
Pierre Rolland (France)
Rigoberto Uran (Colombia)
Ben Swift (Great Britain)
Stef Clement (Netherlands)
Bert Grabsch (Germany)
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy)
Lars Petter Nordhaus (Norway)
Vladimir Miholjevic (Croatia)
Christophe Brandt (Belgium)
Stefan Schumacher (Germany)
Brian Bach Vandborg (Denmark)
Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium)
Timothy Gudsell (New Zealand)
Patricio Almonacid (China)
Evgeniy Gerganov (Bulgaria)
Borut Bozic (Slovenia)
Stuart O’Grady (Australia)
Maxim Iglinskiy (Kazakhstan)
Gabriel Rasch (Norway)
Fumiyuki Beppu (Japan)
Henry Raabe (CRC)
Mehdi Sohrabi (Iran)
Mario Contreras (El Salvador)
Andriy Grivko (Ukraine)
Vladimir Efimkin (Russia)
Jason McCartney (United States)
Roger Hammond (Great Britain)
Karsten Kroon (Netherlands)
Oscar Freire (Spain)
Steve Cummings (Great Britain)
Maxime Monfort (Belgium)
Matej Jurco (Slovakia)
Roman Bronis (Slovakia)
Hichem Chabane (Algeria)
Juan José Haedo (Argentina)
Zhang Liang (China)
Ahmed Belgasem (Libya)
Gerald Michael Ciolek (Germany)
Raivis Belohvosciks (Latvia)
Jonny Bellis (Great Britain)
Laszlo Bodrogi (Hungary)
Daniel Petrov (Bulgaria)
Matias Medici (Argentina)
Niki Terpstra (Netherlands)
Alejandro Borrajo (Argentina)
Robert Hunter (South Africa)
David Zabriskie (United States)