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The current time in Athens is 19:53 on September 23, 2023

Olympic Cycling News for August 15, 2004

Edited by Chris Henry

Bettini gets the gold

Paolo Bettini (Italy)
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Paolo Bettini was the number one favourite for the men's Olympic road race title Saturday in Athens, and the Italian classics specialist met all expectations on the big day. Bettini was crowned Olympic champion after outsprinting breakaway companion Sergio Paulinho of Portugal. Belgian Axel Merckx escaped on his own to cross the line in third and claim the bronze medal.

Bettini, arguably the top one-day rider in the peloton, came close to World Cup wins two weekends in a row while building up for the Athens Olympics, both confirming his excellent fitness but also surprising with his unusual defeats. As the Italian team kept itself hidden in the first half of the race, Bettini emerged at the right moments to test his legs, then made his race-winning attack with just under two laps to go, taking only Paulinho with him.

"Victory is always sweet," Bettini said at the finish. "But Olympics have a particular significance. From this point on, I'm known around the world, not just in cycling."

Bettini, who dedicated the win to his wife Monica and daughter Veronica at home in Italy, kept his cool in the hot Athens summer, preparing for the race as any other. "I just tried to stay concentrated," he said. "I ate a normal breakfast. I just tried to do everything I normally would do before a big race.

"Last year I was unbeatable and I was convinced I would win the World Championships, instead I came home with nothing," he explained. "This year finally I won the most beautiful gold medal."

Men's road race report & results
Live report

Paulinho and Merckx complete podium

The medal podium
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Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, who rides for the Division II LA Pecol team, was a surprise but deserving winner of the silver medal in the men's Olympic road race. As the race entered the final laps and the favourites knew the time had come to make their moves, Paulinho was the only man capable of following the winning attack from Paolo Bettini (Italy). He not only stuck to Bettini's wheel on the penultimate climb, but worked well with the man who figured as hands-down race favourite to ensure their escape would go the distance.

"This is so unbelievable, so unexpected," Paulinho gasped after the race. "Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to win an Olympic medal."

Paulinho had no answer for Bettini's finishing kick as the two eased into the finish for a final sprint. Working together throughout the final lap, the two agreed that they would save their attacks until the final kilometre.

"In the last km, we studied each other and I knew if I looked back, he would attack," race winner Bettini said of his Portuguese companion. Bettini was right, and it was Paulinho who made the first 'surprise' move in the final 500 metres, only to be passed by the Italian.

Meanwhile, Belgian Axel Merckx had made his own attack, jumping clear of the remaining group of leaders on the pavé at the foot of the Acropolis. Merckx's move was well-timed and earned him the bronze medal, even if he left the attack too late to threaten the leaders.

"This was one of my objectives for the season," Merckx said of the Olympics. "I'm very happy. I was very lucky to make the move at the right time."

Axel's father Eddy was on hand, providing commentary for Belgian television at the finish line. Merckx the younger punched the air and gave his proud father a wave when crossing the line, but noted that this was his result.

"I'm not racing after my father," he said, referring to the illustrious career of Eddy Merckx, considered by many to be the greatest cyclist of all time. "Everyone knows his palmarès, but this bronze medal is without a doubt one of the greatest moments of my own career."

When asked what lies in his future, Merckx responded, "beer and french fries!"

Tough day for Aussies

By Paul Mulvey, AAP

Stuart O'Grady
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Stuart O'Grady has described it as the hardest race of his life after Australia finished out of the medals in the Olympic men's road race as the searing temperatures and difficult course took its toll on riders. O'Grady and Robbie McEwen came to the Games in brilliant form and were expected to challenge for medals in the 224.4km race around Athens' historic city centre, but fell off the pace in temperatures reaching the high 30s.

Tour de France green jersey winner McEwen was in a leading group of six riders more than a minute ahead of the peloton less than 50km from the finish but his group was swallowed up. He finished 11th, 12 seconds behind race winner Paolo Bettini.

O'Grady, winner of the HEW Cyclassics and a stage in the Tour of Denmark this month, finished 33rd, while teammates Matt White and Baden Cooke pulled out after 10 of the 17 laps, followed by Michael Rogers a lap later.

"It was definitely the hardest one-day race in my life," O'Grady said. "The conditions, the heat, the technical course just made it a very, very hard race."

More than 50 riders pulled out in the battle of attrition and White slammed the decision to ride the race in the city centre in the hottest part of the day.

"Unbelievable. To start at one o'clock in the middle of the day and go right through to six," White said. "We're in the city circuit with the glare and lots and lots of heat coming off the road. It has obviously been a very hard race."

Cooke, the 2002 Tour de France points winner, revealed after pulling out that he took a chest infection into the race and has been on a course of antibiotics, which forced a change of team tactics.

"At the team meeting we decided we'd use me up front early rather than late," Cooke said. "Originally I was going to be one of the leaders but as it turned out, I was feeling pretty shabby and my job was to take Stuey to the front at every climb early on and, in the mid section, bring back a few breaks."

Cooke had driven the Australians for the first 140km, pulling O'Grady and White with him as they kept in touch with initial breakaway leader, Swede Magnus Backstedt who attacked the second time the peloton went past the Acropolis.

Crash takes out Astarloa and others

Crash on first lap ended the day for world champion Igor Astarloa of Spain, Colombian Marlon Perez, Dutchman Michael Boogerd, Russia's Vladimir Karpets, and Ukraine's Serguei Gonchar. Astarloa's teammate José Ivan Gutierrez was also caught in the crash, and although he remounted and carried on, he abandoned later in the day.

Astarloa, who feared a broken collarbone, was diagnosed with a serious contusion to his shoulder but no fractures were revealed. He was released from the hospital and returned to the Olympic village.

Lithuanian women's drama

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

Although Lithuanian woman cyclist Diana Ziliute had prepared very well for Sunday's women's Olympic road race, when she arrived in Athens Friday, there had been a surprising change in plan for the one of the favourites for the women's Olympic road title.

It seems that Ziliute's Lithuanian teammates Rasa and Jolanta Polikeviciute had convinced team director Valerie Konovalovas to replace Ziliute with Edita Pucinskaite at the last minute and without Ziliute's knowledge. Ziliute could still ride the time trial and track events (which she hadn't prepared for) but was nixed in the women's Olympic road race.

Ziliute, 1997 women's world road race champion, was understandably miffed at the decision of Konovalovas and after a heated discussion with Konovalovas, she decided to withdraw from the Olympics and return home to Lithuania.

"This is scandalous", explained Ziliute's trade team manager Maurizio Fabretto from Athens. "There is no reason for this except politics..."

Ziliute is expected to have a press conference in Vilnius in the next few days to explain the reasons for her withdrawal from the Women's Olympic road race.

White readies for wife's Olympics

By Paul Mulvey, AAP

Australian Matt White will head back to Sydney after Saturday's men's road race to help wife Jane Saville, a professional race walker, erase her nightmare 20km walk from 2000. White returns home to put on his coach's cap and spend the week with Saville before they return to Athens for her 20km walk on August 23.

In Sydney four years ago, White saw Saville as she was leading the field 300 metres from the Olympic stadium finish line and started early gold medal celebrations. Minutes later, she was sobbing in his arms after being disqualified as she entered the stadium. As Saville's coach as well as husband, White has watched at close range her four-year wait for a second chance.

"It's very different for us in cycling from athletics," White said. "We've got lots of races every year, for them the Olympics are only every four years, world championships every two.

"The worlds are pretty big, but the Olympics is it," he added. "And to come so close in Sydney, it's basically been four years of waiting, four years of training. She hasn't raced since May so it's hard to know how she's going, whereas we race all the time."

White said the years between Games was the hardest period for Saville.

"It was probably harder for her in 2001 and 2002 to cope with than actually straight after the Olympics, it was such a big high, people were stopping her in the street and saying congratulations anyway, we're proud of you.

"It was pretty hard for her to be depressed and upset at the time but then when it sinks in and the Olympics are gone and you've got nothing to show for it, it's a long time between 2000 and 2004."

The 20km walk has a distinct family flavour, with Saville's sister Natalie also in the event. She too is coached by White.

Don't paint the roads

A Welshman believed to be the father of Great Britain team leader Nicole Cooke has been arrested for painting his daughter's name on the Olympic road race parcours in Athens. Cooke will compete in the women's event Sunday and is counted among the favourites for the gold medal.

"The father, Anthony Cooke, and another Welshman wanted to show their support for the daughter so they used white paint to write her name on the street, breaching security cordons," a police official told Reuters. "They were arrested on the spot."

The official said the men put Cooke's name on a section of the road race course in the Kolonaki neighbourhood, where several embassies have tightened security during the Games. The two men were released after police checked their identities.

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