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29th Olympic Games - JO

Beijing, China, August 9-23, 2008

World's best bound for Beijing

By Greg Johnson

Professional riders pass a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate
Photo ©: AFP
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The Olympic Games of the XXIX Olympiad, to be held in Beijing, China this August, will mark the dawn of a new era for the sport of cycling, in addition to the close of another. Bicycling Motor Cross will join its fellow cycling disciplines - road, mountain bike and track - on the Olympic schedule for the first time.

While the Bicycling Motor Cross, or BMX, discipline will be brought into the Olympic Games for the first time since its inception in 776 BC, it comes at a cost of two track events. The men's one kilometre time trial and women's 500 metre time trial were controversially dropped from the games in order to pave way for the discipline with a younger, mass audience.

Controversy hasn't only been limited to the make up of this year's Games, with China's human rights policy prompting some nations to announce that parts or all of their team will boycott the opening ceremony.

A rendering of the Laoshan Velodrome before
Photo ©: AFP
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Politically-motivated actions, like Cadel Evans' 'Free Tibet' tee-shirt seen throughout the season, had also prompted the International Olympic Committee to put out a release earlier this year warning athletes off making such gestures at the games. The IOC however backed down the following day, clarifying that its note only related to ceremonies, such as podium presentations, and that competitors wouldn't be punished for expressing their opinions outside of the competition area.

One thing that hasn't changed however is the competitors desire to claim gold. The drive towards Olympic glory is as strong as ever and with the addition of BMX will be open to more cycling disciplines than ever.

Inside the new Laoshan Velodrome
Photo ©: AFP
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While Beijing will be the first Olympic Games held in an Asian nation this century, the region is far from uncharted territory for the modern Olympics. Japan was slated to become the first Asian country to host the modern Olympic Games in 1940, but was stripped of the event by the IOC after the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out during World War II.

Despite the earlier incident, Tokyo went on the see Japan become the first Asian nation to stage the games some 24 years later, in 1964. South Korea was the next nation within the region to host the games, with its 1988 event in Seoul the most recent event staged in the region.

All roads to Beijing

Alejandro Valverde, didn't win the Tour, but is riding strong
Photo ©: Isabelle Duchesne
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All eyes are on the skies in Beijing this month. With the fluctuating air quality like a lucky dip, it's anyone's guess as to what impact it will have on the endurance events, such as the road cycling races. When push comes to shove the International Olympic Committee can force the postponement of events, but some commentators have said it will never happen - no matter the risk to athlete's health - due to the embarrassment it would bring on the proud host nation.

While the weather is a case of 'watch this space', Cyclingnews can tell you Paolo Bettini (Italy) stands a good chance of defending his road race title from Athens, but Alejandro Valverde (Spain) will pose a big threat to the World Champion's Olympic-double. Fresh off his Clásica San Sebastián win, Valverde will ride with the support of a strong Spanish squad.

Squads like Australia, Russia and the United States of America will likely be animated in the race, but will struggle to match the Italian and Spanish squads over the final kilometres. Germany and Belgium are also fielding strong rosters, and with two Tour de France yellow jersey wears and this year's white jersey making its entire line-up, one could expect Luxembourg to put in a good showing too.

Carla Ryan leads Cervelo Lifeforce
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While Great Britain's Nicole Cooke is targeting the Olympic Games women's road race this year, she will have her work cut out. Cooke will face strong opponents in Holland's Marianne Vos, Italy's Noemi Cantele, Australia's defending Olympic champion Sarah Carrigan and German Judith Arndt, who has been in spectacular form leading up to this weekend's event.

Swiss world TT champion Fabian Cancellara will be strong in the men's time trial. While Cancellara didn't win either of last month's Tour de France time trials, he proved a valuable engine in the overall winner's line-up and must be targeting a strong result in Beijing. Having overcome Cancellara twice at the Tour, Stefan Schumacher is hard to discount as a gold medal contender. Michael Rogers (Australia) will be an unknown quantity, having been out due to illness, however he's the highest placed rider from Athens to contest this year's Games.

After taking bronze in Athens four years ago Karin Thürig could take gold for Swizterland in China. Thürig won the Individual Time Trial at the recent Thüringen-Rundfahrt in Germany, where current world champion Hanka Kupfernagel (Germany) finished over a minute down in sixth. Other contenders include Thürig's Cervelo-Lifeforce team-mates Kristin Armstrong (United States of America) and Christiane Soeder (Austria). The Cervelo-Lifeforce team, which included Thürig and Soeder, showed their strength by winning the Open de Suède Vargarda Team Time Trial Women's World Cup event last weekend.

Britain's track attack

Chris Hoy (Great Britain)
Photo ©: John Pierce
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We can expect the Union Jack to fly high above the track podiums at this year's Games, but for a change it won't be the one shoved in the corner on the Australian flag. British Cycling has turned out a team that will rival its far-away colony, and any other nation for that matter.

Great Britain showed off its rise to prominence at this year's Track World Championship in Manchester, England. With a boost in funding from the national lottery and the chance to enter its home Games in Manchester in 2012 as defending Olympic champions, the squad is expected to perform this month in China and looks ready to deliver.

While Britain's squad will headline this year's Games, it won't be unrivaled with France likely to be its main opponent. Unlike the Olympic Games road races, the gold medals laid down in the track events are the discipline's pinnacle. It's the Holly Grail of track racing, and the likes of Anna Meares (Australia) and Marianne Vos (Netherlands) will be hoping to rise from the smog with gold around their necks.

Dirt track to Olympic gold

Julien Absalon (France)
Photo ©: Fj Hughes
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Off the back of two World Cup victories in Canada Julien Absalon (France) is in unstoppable form, something that's unlikely to change between now and the Olympic Games cross country race. The muddy conditions last weekend in Canada should be similar to what's expected in China, but the former world champion doesn't mind what the weather's like. "If it rains, it's good. If it doesn't rain, it's good," smiled Asbalon in Canada.

The Chinese women have pulled some surprisingly strong cross country results in the past 12 months, but the biggest question mark is over Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa. After a bad year last year Dahle Flesjaa has taken a different approach to racing this year and while she didn't start last weekend's World Cup race, she's widely tipped as the rider to watch in the expected difficult conditions.

Baby BMX

Donny Robinson (USA)
Photo ©: Evan Jeffery
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Bicycling Motor Cross will take cross country mountain biking title as the baby of cycling's Olympic Games disciplines when it makes its debut later this month. BMX has, in part, been added to the Olympic schedule as an attempt to broaden the Games' appeal to younger global markets.

Gen-Y won't be worrying itself with the marketing motives behind its addition when the riders line up later this month. There are a handful of psyched riders ready to inscribe their names in Olympic history by taking gold in Beijing.

The Americans will be strong with World Cup leader Donny Robinson leading its charge in the men's event. The women's race will likely be fought out between Great Britain's multi-talented Shanaze Reade, who has made a name for herself in track racing, and New Zealand's World Cup leader Sarah Walker.

Throughout this year's games Cyclingnews will have live coverage of all road cycling events as well as the men's and women's cross country mountain bike events.