August 14, 2004 – “Good health is the best solution to all problems.” So said Italian Paulo Bettini before he started the men’s 224.4 km road race in 40C conditions on the first day of the Athens Olympics, leading to an all-European sweep of the podium with Sergio Paulinho from Portugal taking silver, Belgium’s Axel Merckx, son of the legendary Eddy Merckx embracing the bronze, and German favorite Erik Zabel winning the group sprint in fourth place. Michael Barry, age 28, was the top Canadian in at 32nd place, while Gordon Fraser dropped out with 53 km left, and Eric Wohlberg pulled out in the second last lap, both with leg cramps.
Bettini rode brilliantly, letting what could easily have become dangerous breaks get away on the 13.2 km course, and saved his effort for the halfway point when the race really started to cook. Every break was eventually reeled in, and Bettini was never far from the front for the entire race, always sitting in the top 30, and only once dropping down to the middle of the bunch during the sixth lap of the 17-lap race. At approximately 135 km, there was a decisive break of one dozen riders, and Bettini attacked within it, taking Paulinho with him at approximately the 60 km mark. By this time nearly half the field had dropped out of the grueling course that circled the ancient Acropolis, and scrubby streets dotted with olive trees and freshly planted, perfectly smelling rosemary.
Bettini and Paulinho made a huge effort and made a clean break from the field. The two worked well with each other, creating a gap of up to 49 seconds, with the Italians controlling any break that tried to catch them from the field. But this race was not only about the Italian and Portuguese riders. With 4km to go, Axel Merckx made his move out of a loose chase group and quickly established a solid gap on the peloton, while closing in on the leaders. Barry said later, “I gave it a go in the final couple of kilometres but I couldn’t hold Axel’s wheel when he came by me, I was just cramping up.”
At this point all the three top riders had to do was execute the rather slippery cobblestone corners and curves and see who would win the sprint for gold and silver. At the one kilometre mark Bettini and Paulinho spoke in cycling language to each other””that common language that transcends nationality””and decided it was time to play cat and mouse.
With each of them watching over their shoulders for each other and for Mercx, whom they both knew was quickly closing the gap, they jockeyed for the preferential position in the sprint. They continued at a near crawl until they were inside the two hundred metre mark and Paulinho let loose from behind. He quickly established over a one bike length lead, but Bettini wanted the victory very badly, and found just that much more strength to take the final sprint in a total time of 5:41:44. Paulinho finished one second behind him, and Merckx finished eight seconds down with a stunning and gutsy solo performance in 5:41:52, while the field followed four seconds later in 5:41:56.
Afterwards, despite the grand effort he had made, Bettini looked refreshed while Paulinho and Merckxclearly looked like they wanted out of the crowded press room, perhaps as real fatigue and dehydration started to take their toll. Still, Merckx was particularly entertaining explaining he was “extremely happy” with the bronze, as “it is a dream come true. Everyone in this room knows my father and what he did, but I never try to compete against my dad. For me, it is my race.”
Barry was also pleased with his results saying that, “The day basically unfolded the way we thought, just riders being dropped from behind and attacks coming in the final lap for the medals.” Meanwhile, Bettini says he and Paulinho wouldn’t celebrate wildly in the Athlete’s Village as there are many other athletes who have competitions to perform. “Victory is always sweet,” he added, “but it has special significance here because I won at the Olympic Games. It is the whole world of sport.”
1. Paolo Bettini (Italy) 5.41.44 (39.4 km/h)
2. Sergio Paulinho (Portugal) 0.01
3. Axel Merckx(Belgium) 0.08
4. Erik Zabel (Germany) 0.12
5. Andrej Hauptman (Slovenia)
6. Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg)
7. Roger Hammond (Great Britain)
8. Frank Hoj (Denmark)
9. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Norway)
10. Alexandr Kolobnev (Russia)
11. Robbie McEwen (Australia)
12. Markus Zberg (Switzerland)
13. Ciaran Power (Ireland)
14. Marcus Ljungqvist (Sweden)
15. Julian Dean (New Zealand)
16. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg)
17. Max Van Heeswijk (Netherlands)
18. Tyler Hamilton (USA)
19. Jan Ullrich (Germany)
20. Thomas Voeckler (France)
32. Michael Barry (Canada)
DNF Gord Fraser
DNF Eric Wohlberg