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Olympic Games feature, August 12, 2008

The clock is ticking

Before the Olympics heads to the boards, there are two more gold medals - and two silvers and two bronzes, of course - up for grabs on the road. Ellis Bacon previews Wednesday's men's and women's time trials.

Stefan Schumacher is eyeing the time trial after he abandoned the road race with a headache
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Off the back of the time trials at the Tour de France, the men's Olympic time trial is guaranteed to be an interesting and exciting affair.

Surprise winner of both time trials in July, Germany's Stefan Schumacher has elevated himself into the position of one of the strong favourites, but suffered in the humidity during Saturday's road race and failed to finish.

Conversely, a strong ride from Fabian Cancellara to take bronze behind Samuel Sanchez and Davide Rebellin demonstrates that the Swiss time trial ace, and reigning TT world champion, is clearly up for the task in hand, but even without that performance, he would surely have started on Wednesday as the favourite.

But he'll have to deal with Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg who rides well against the clock, and who put Cancellara in his place by beating him in the first time trial at the Tour de France, before finishing just a place behind him in third in the second and final TT. Kirchen was clearly in the form of his life at the Tour, and may be the dark horse who can do the job over the hilly 47-kilometre course, made up of two laps of the circuit on which the road race finished.

Possibly spoiling the Tour boys' party are Australia's Michael Rogers and American Levi Leipheimer, neither of whom rode in July, but who are both specialists against the clock. Leipheimer, as part of Alberto Contador's Astana squad, was not invited to the Tour, while Rogers is only just back from glandular fever.

Fabian Cancellara would love to take out another medal
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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However, the Aussie's strong performance in last Saturday's road race, where he took sixth, shows that the 28-year-old three-time time trial world champion has recovered from illness and is back to his best and up to the task.

Leipheimer's trade team-mate Contador must be an outside bet for a medal, too. The Spaniard will be looking to hone his form for September's Tour of Spain, where he is aiming to become only the fifth rider ever to have won all three Grand Tours, having won last year's Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in May.

And Cadel Evans confirmed his participation at the eleventh hour, and will be hoping to make up for his dismal performance against the clock in the Tour's final time trial when he couldn't do enough to overhaul Carlos Sastre. Much has been said about his post-Tour knee injury, but the Aussie is ready to give it a go after a strong performance in the road race where he finished 15th.

An honourable mention should also go to time trial specialist David Zabriskie who has fought back from injury after his crash at the Tour of Italy and would love to surprise a few people.

Karin Thürig has won a few time trials this year and hopes to do the same on Wednesday
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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We wouldn't put our house on this one, and five into three doesn't go, but three of Rogers, Leipheimer, Schumacher, Kirchen or Cancellara should share the medals.

The women's event, held over one lap of the same 23.8-kilometre course as the men, is almost as open.

Great Britain's Nicole Cooke, having achieved her main aim of winning the road race, will now turn her more-than-capable skills against the clock to trying to take a second gold, although whether she will be quite as motivated remains to be seen. Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel, now back to health, fancies her chances as the reigning time trial world champion.

The US will be pinning their hopes on Kristin Armstrong, who finished second to Kupfernagel at those Stuttgart Worlds, having won herself in 2006. Switzerland, meanwhile, would love to take a double gold haul through Cancellara in the men's event and Karin Thürig in the women's race. Thürig is the only medal winner still riding from the Athens Olympics four years ago following the retirement of winner Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel and silver medalist Dede Barry from the USA, both of whom have retired.

And we would be foolish to discount 49-year-old French legend Jeannie Longo who, after a disappointing road race by her own tough standards, where she finished 24th, just 33 seconds down on Cooke, will be out to prove that age is no barrier to success. A case of time still being on her side, perhaps?


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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net

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