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Hitting The Wall

The vista along the road race was breathtaking, but so were the conditions. Intense heat wiped out more than a third of the men's field, while a crash on a rain-slicked surface derailed the U.S.'s female medal hope

NOW HERE was ascream, loosed in celebration, but also in relief. Late Sunday afternoon,Nicole Cooke, a 25-year-old Welsh cyclist, shoved the front wheel of herjet-black Boardman bike across the finish line first in the women's Olympicroad race. Then she pumped her right fist and shrieked for five long seconds,sending decibels into the green mountainsides that rise to meet the Great Wallof China at Juyongguan Pass, 30 miles north of Beijing.

Rain fell instrangely cool, windblown sheets through the canyon as dozens of ridersfollowed Great Britain's Cooke beneath the finish clock, until at last abizarre weekend of Olympic cycling—some of it unexpectedly wet and chilly, someof it painfully hot and humid—was finished. Against a breathtaking backdrop(the section of the Great Wall that is closest to Beijing proper), the men hadraced 152.4 miles in bludgeoning heat on Saturday, before the women raced 78.5miles a day later, beginning in dense, overcast dampness and finishing on whatcould have been a miserable fall football Saturday in Seattle. "Somebodyhad asked me if I was taking a rain jacket to Beijing, and I laughed atthem," said U.S. cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who was involved in a crash andfinished 25th, as she stood soaked and shivering near the finish line onSunday. "I think this [weather] was my karma."

Cyclists would bethe test case for Beijing's weather Olympics, lab rats subjected to unrealconditions as the extreme example of how performance—or health—might beaffected by the area's debilitating combination of heat, humidity and theomnipresent gray haze that is either harmless water vapor or noxious smog,depending on who is describing it. On Saturday, China served up the worstimaginable conditions: temperatures in the mid-80s with 90% humidity, promptingcyclist Juan José Haedo of Argentina to observe, "It feels like you havehot cream all over your body."

The men began inBeijing and rode 48.8 miles north before doing seven punishing circuits in thefoothills near the Wall. Sammy Sànchez of the powerful Spanish team (whichincluded this year's Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre) won the race—"awar of attrition," said Australian cyclist Mick Rogers, invoking the phraseof the day—with a late sprint that followed a five-man breakaway in the finalnine miles.

The riders wereprepared for the tough elements around Beijing. "There are not many placesthat feel like it did today," said Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal."But if you're riding the grand tours and major one-day events, you getused to it." Canadian rider Michael Barry, 32, who faded to ninth afterbeing alive for a medal until the final sprint, said, "I've had similardays for sure," though he then had to go back 15 years to a race inMilwaukee to recall comparable circumstances. In all, 53 of the 143 malestarters either stopped riding before the finish or were pulled from the courseafter being lapped on one of the mountain circuits. "I don't think I'veever been in tougher conditions," said Ben Swift of Great Britain, whodropped out of the race on the last of the mountain laps. "We get the heata lot, Italy in the summer. But the humidity. It was so hard tobreathe."

The manner ofSànchez's victory was typical of conservatively ridden one-days: Sprintfinishers prevail. In the end he came in a bike-length ahead of Davide Rebellinof Italy. Bronze medalist Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland was the mostheroic—and the most braggadocious—of all, chasing down the five-man break alonein the final miles and holding on for third, a performance, he said later,"that means I'm good."

THE WOMEN'S fieldfaced a dramatically different set of problems on Sunday. Like the men, theyprepared relentlessly to race in jungle-like weather conditions. "We wereexpecting 40 degrees [Celsius, 104° Fahrenheit] and sweltering humidity,"said 2004 Olympic road gold medalist Sara Carrigan of Australia, who finished adistant 38th on Sunday. "What we got was a complete 180."

They pushed awayfrom the start in Beijing at two in the afternoon, three hours later than themen had begun the day before. Rain had fallen lightly in the morning, but atstart time the temperature was tolerable—about 87°—though the air felt soppingwet. A field of 66 riders rolled north, biding their time and guzzling fluids,and not seeming particularly stressed about the conditions. (The women alsoraced the 48.8 miles north, but did just two circuits in the mountains.) "Iwas really well hydrated," said U.S. racer Amber Neben, who finished 33rdafter dropping her chain on the last lap in the hills.

But 20 milesoutside Beijing, the peloton rode into a downpour. The temperature dropped 10°,and deep puddles formed at the sides of the road. At the 48-mile mark, GuSungeun of Korea slipped out sideways and took out half a dozenriders—including Armstrong—in an ugly crash that left Gu crumpled with her bikein a foot-deep drainage culvert alongside the highway. (She got up and finished58th.) Once in the mountains, puddles and slick, fresh road paint made descentstreacherous.

"Epic,"said Leigh Hobson of Canada, a 38-year-old veteran who finished 17th. "Allthat we were missing was lightning. There were big puddles on all the descents,and you had to make sure of your line. You go down and your race is over. Plus,I was just training in Italy, where it was [107°], and here I am shivering onthe bike." During one descent, Neben took a newspaper from her supportvehicle and stuffed it under her racing jersey, an insulating tactic common inthe Alps—where dramatic temperature changes from bottom to top arecommonplace—but stunning for China, where on Saturday men had raced with theirjerseys unzipped to the waist, splattering the roadways with sweat.

A repeat ofSaturday's weather conditions might have favored the well-conditioned U.S.women's team. "Our team needed attrition," said Armstrong. Instead, thepace was soft on the flats leaving the city (in part because of a headwind thatdiscouraged breakaways) and the riding was dangerous in the hills. Neben wasplanning to spring Armstrong with an attack—"I was going to set off somefireworks to get Kristin away," she said—when her chain dropped.

Cooke won asSànchez won, by getting help from her team (notably Emma Pooley, who initiatedone breakaway and chased down two others) and proving fastest in a short,intense sprint at the finish. U.S. racers Armstrong and Christine Thorburnlooked to the time trial that lay ahead. (Both genders were scheduled to ride atime trial, 29.2 miles for the men, 14.6 miles for the women, in the samemountains on Wednesday in Beijing.) "I think we've got great chances forthe podium," said Armstrong.

Of course, in theecho of Cooke's primal victory scream there was a message: The race will mockplans, ridicule preparation and trash ambition. "This is cycling," saidCarrigan. "It hardly ever goes the way you plan it."

"Epic," said the veteran Hobson. "All thatwe were missing was LIGHTNING."


Photograph by Robert Beck

WEATHER BEATER Great Britain's Cooke took the gold on a day when the skies opened and temperatures swung.



[See caption above]



COLD SHOULDER The downpour in the women's race led to treacherous mountain riding—and this spill by Canada's Alexandra Wrubleski.