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Olympics 2004 – US Team Report at Men\’s RR

August 14, 2004 – The 2004 Olympic Games officially opened
today as men’s road cycling grabbed the spotlight. Entering the day with
medal potential, the U.S. quintet of Tyler Hamilton (Marblehead, Mass.),
George Hincapie (Greenville, S.C.), Bobby Julich (Glenwood Springs, Colo.),
Levi Leipheimer (Santa Rosa, Calif.) and Jason McCartney (Coralville, Iowa)
expected a race of attrition under a hot midday sun and on a technically
challenging course. Despite aggressive riding by the entire team, a presence
in virtually every key move, and four riders in the mix during the race’s
closing kilometres, the U.S. team fell short of its medal hopes.

Heavy pre-race favorite Paolo Bettini (ITA) executed a late-race attack to
perfection to claim the gold medal ahead of the relatively unknown Sergio
Paulinho (PORT) after the duo formed the winning break with a lap and a half
remaining. Axel Merckx (BEL) sailed away from the remainder of the field in
the last kilometer to secure the bronze.

Hamilton was the top finisher for the U.S., officially placing 18th in the
ensuing bunch sprint. Hincapie followed in 24th, while Julich was 28th.
Leipheimer and McCartney did not finish.

As the field of 144 riders approached the line for their 12:45pm start time,
temperatures pushing 100 degrees Farenheit greeted them as they prepared for
almost six hours on the bike. The temperatures were expected by many to be a
major factor and just prior to the race, officials ruled that the single
feed zone on the course wasn’t going to be enough to keep the peloton
hydrated. As a testament to the conditions, officials decided to allow
feeding from caravan despite the danger of such a practice on a technical
course.

On the agenda for the riders was a total of 224.4kms split up amongst 17
laps of a 13.2 km circuit. Starting directly across from City Hall, the
course ventured throughout downtown Athens and included a few climbs
including the 2.5km 12% effort up Lycabetous Hill and a cobble section as
the road wound its way around the famed Acropolis. On paper, the hills
weren’t going to be enough to split the peloton, but factor in the distance,
the heat, the small team sizes and the technicality of the course and it was
anybody’s race.

After training on the course earlier in the week, the general consensus form
the riders was that crashes were going to be a significant concern given the
slick pavement and tight, twisty sections where riders jockey for position.
In the opening kilometers, some pre-race jitters claimed the hopes of two
potential medalists as World Champion, Igor Astarloa (ESP), and Michael
Boogerd (NED) hit the deck and were forced to abandon.

Perhaps in recognition of the long day ahead, the remainder of the first lap
and most of the second were relatively uneventful as the peloton seemed
content to ride an easy pace. Near the end of lap two however Magnus
Backstedt (SWE) escaped from the bunch and quickly opened up a substantial
gap. With 200K remaining, the field was happy to let him ride away.

At the end of lap four, Backstedt’s lead had increased to a 0:3:24
advantage before the group behind started to take notice. Richard
Virenque (FRA) and Laszlo Bodrogi (HUN) mounted a chase and began to close
down the gap to Backstedt. After four laps of chasing, Virenque and Bodrogi
made contact with Backstedt while the peloton remained at 2:45.

During lap nine, the German team, led by Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and
Jens Voigt moved to the front to bring back the three leaders. With the help
of the Australian team, the lead had fallen to 1:42 with eight laps
remaining. Efforts to bridge across came from the Spanish duo of Alejandro
Valverde and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, but the increasing speed of the
peloton and constant attacks, including one from Julich, kept any efforts at
bay and only helped to bring back the trio ahead. With seven laps remaining,
the break was all but caught as Leipheimer led the peloton through the
start/finish just 19 seconds behind the leaders.

After the leaders were caught on the beginning of lap 11, Julich exemplified
the U.S. team’s tenacity in a short lived break of five that was caught
prior to the climb up Lycabetous Hill. On the ensuing ascent, the U.S. team,
now down to four riders after McCartney abandoned, looked promising as
Hincapie, Hamilton, Julich, and Leipheimer were all near the front and
looking strong.

Throughout the next couple of laps, a two-man break with Felipe Jimenez
LaVerde (COL) and Georg Totschnig (AUT) materialized, but didn’t get far.
With Julich continuing to have a presence in any chase group, a threatening
six-man break containing Unai Etxebbarria (VEN), Robbie McEwen (AUS), Ciaran
Power (IRL), Ryan Cox (RSA) and Christian Moreni (ITA) established itself
and quickly gained a minute lead on the remainder of the peloton with five
laps remaining. With too much horsepower behind however, the break was
caught on lap 14.

After several other selections as the pace intensified, Hamilton found
himself in a lead group of five on lap 15. After that move was swallowed up,
Hincapie launched a counterattack but was soon caught. With two to go,
Mercxk, Frank Hoj (DEN), Luca Paolini (ITA), Kurt Arvesen (NOR) escaped and
were soon caught as the following group sensed the end was near and the
decisive move was soon to come.

As the riders crested the climb that followed the feed zone, Bettini
unleashed an attack that a spent U.S. team couldn’t follow even though a
late-race move from Bettini was inevitable. The only rider that could match
Bettini’s pace was Paulinho who tacked on to Bettini’s wheel for the final
lap and a half. As the two rounded the final corner, Bettini made one last
effort and put the finishing touches on his gold medal ride, shedding
Paulinho on his way to the line.

Behind, a medal was still within the U.S. team’s grasps considering
Hincapie’s finishing speed and Hamilton and Julich’s aggressiveness, but it
was Merckx who managed to escape for bronze just four seconds ahead of the
field sprint which was taken by Erik Zabel (GER).

“When he’s on form, if he’s not the best one-day rider in the world, then
he’s one of the best”, said Hamilton following the race. “To enter the race
as a favorite and back that up with a win is really impressive. He’s to
single day events like Lance and Ullrich are to the Tour de France. He’s the
overall world cup champion and was second in the last two world cup races,
so we knew he was one to watch.”

With the departure of Lance Armstrong from the Olympic team, Hamilton
explained that the U.S. team’s strategy revolved around a few options rather
than having the clarity of a sole leader that Armstrong’s presence would
have brought. “We didn’t have a Bettini on our team”, he said. “Our plan was
pretty open and just depended on how things panned out. I knew if we went in
all the breakaways we’d have a chance in the end. We rode a good race. We
were aggressive all day long and tried to go in all the moves. To be honest,
when Bettini attacked I thought he may have went too early. Unfortunately,
that wasn’t the case.”

Hincapie, tabbed as one of the best hopes for a U.S. medal suffered from
cramping late in the race and perhaps not the best training regiment leading
up to the Olympics as a member of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team.
“I don’t think riding on the front of the Tour de France for three weeks was
the best preparation for the Olympics, but I wouldn’t trade the experience
of being on the winning Tour team six years in a row for anything in the
world”, Hincapie commented afterwards. “I’m still affected by the way we
rode in France. I felt great with six laps to go, but started to cramp
pretty badly with two laps to go. I was basically pedaling with one leg.”

Once Bettini went, Julich knew it was all but over. “When he went, he just
left everybody behind,” Julich recalled. “He went so hard and so fast, none
of us could go with him. As soon as that move went and Paulinho went with
him, I knew we were racing for a bronze medal.”

Leipheimer, also in the same boat as many of the others after placing 9th
overall in last month’s Tour de France, felt the effects of a demanding
July. “I wasn’t feeling the greatest today,” he explained. “I did as much as
I could and made sure my teammates were at the front at all of the critical
areas of the course. When the pace really accelerated, I couldn’t stay with
Bobby and Tyler. I just tried to make sure they were well positioned and
tried to stay in as long as I could to keep them at the front.”

As for the team’s fifth member, McCartney made an earlier exit after being
introduced to the upper echelon of professional cycling. The largely
domestic road pro who competes primarily on the U.S. circuit notched a huge
win at the Tour de Georgia in April and won the Team USA Selection Race in
June to secure his spot on the team, but the Olympics were simply on another
tier. “Everybody else is just on a different level,” McCartney explained. “I
helped out as much as I could and ended up getting some good experience. I
feel like I’ve let my teammates down a little bit and feel bad I wasn’t able
to help out as much as I wanted. It definitely would have been good to do
some prep races in Europe before coming to the Olympics.”

Given the lottery of a one day road race with relatively small team sizes,
the U.S. team ended their day knowing they were always in the mix and rode
an aggressive race. After their performances today, Hamilton and Julich feel
good about their chances in the time trial next week. “Today was great
training for Wednesday,” noted Hamilton. “It shows I’m pretty strong right
now if I can ride on the front in breakaways.”

Results

1. Paolo Bettini (ITA) 5:41:44 (39.4km/h)
2. Sergio Paulinho (POR) 0.01
3. Axel Merckx (BEL) 0.08
18. Tyler Hamilton (USA) 0.12
24. George Hincapie (USA) s.t.
28. Bobby Julich (USA) s.t.
DNF Levi Leipheimer (USA)
DNF Jason McCartney (USA)





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