Posted by Editor on 08/10/08
Great Britain's Nicole Cooke has had to live for years with the pressure and expecttions of being considered one of the best young riders on the planet. So possibly the almost primal scream she let out as she crossed the finish line to win the gold medal in the women's road race on Sunday could be put down to having finally lived up to that billing.
"I just came over the line, and wasn't composed enough to take my hands off the bars, but there were so many emotions, so all I could do was just make noise."
Leigh Hobson was the first of Canada's finishers in 17th place, the top North American, at 28 seconds behind Cooke. She was followed by Erinne Willock in 37th at 59 seconds, and Alex Wrubleski, who had crashed, in 50th place at 7:12.
The women faced much tougher weather conditions then the men, starting in heat and humidity in Beijing and then hitting rain shortly before they reached the finishing circuit at the Great Wall in Badaling, after a 78 kilometre flat run up.
The race did not really begin until the riders reached the 23 kilometre circuit, which begins with a 12 kilometre climb. As they crossed the line the first time for two laps the peloton was all together, having caught one rider who had been out in front - Alexandra Burchenkova of Russia, who had carved out a maximum 15 second lead.
There was a crash in slippery conditions, taking down Nicole Cooke (GBr), Amber Neben (USA) and 4 others just after they caught Burchenkova, which slowed the pack further.
Shortly into the climb a second Russian rider attacked, Natalia Boyarskaya, who opened a significantly larger lead of a minute as they approached the summit of the climb the first time.
The rain, which was coming down so heavily that the riders were having trouble seeing on the descent, also chilled them significantly on the ten kilometres back down, and led to a number of crashes, including Wrubleski, who touched wheels and went down hard. According to Team Manager Dan Proulx, Wrubleski bruised her hip and hit her head, breaking her helmet.
"She's pretty shook up, but otherwise okay," said Proulx. Wrubleski is still expected to contest the time trial on Wednesday.
"It was pretty epic," agreed Hobson. "It just got heavier and heavier [rain], then we got cold. It went from bad to worse. You had to be more aware of the painted lines on the road - and there were a lot - and everyone was fighting for position."
Willock: It definitiely wasn't the race that I had expected - it's the Olympics and i thought it would be the hardest race, but we were puttering at 35 kilometres an hour for 70 kilometres. Then it started raining, and then raining harder ... then people started fighting for position and it was getting sketchy."
"The Russian [Boyarskaya] attacked on the first climb, and Trixie [Worrack - Germany] and Amber [Neben - USA] were setting tempo. I felt good on the first climb, climbing in the top five. It was a scary descent, and I was shivering pretty hard by the bottom, and then Alex went down."
The peloton was gradually wearing down Boyarskaya, the pace quickened by the attack of Cooke's team mate Emma Pooley, who jumped away just before the riders crossed finish line to start their final lap and was joined by Tatiana Guderzo (Italy).
"Emma (Pooley) attacking was good for the team," said Cooke. "If Emma had stayed away then I would have been supporting her. I could save myself and ride defensively, while it put the other teams on the back foot and me in a good position. As a team we rode a fantastic race."
"When Pooley went, I was there," said Willock. "I didn't go, I don't know why. Everyone was skittish, I was slipping, my back wheel sliding go uphill."
Chantal Beltman (Netherlands) did go after Pooley and Guderzo, and the trio quickly caught the tiring Boyarskaya. But this was too much for the German team, and they brought everyone back together by the halfway point of the climb.
Then came the decisive move, by Guderzo, with less than two kilometres to go to the top. Everyone hesitated, and Guderzo gained 15 seconds.
"It was a plan that our team had discussed, so I attacked. We wanted to make it as hard a race as possible, and make a selection happen. We wanted to have as small a group as possible at the finish."
Four riders reacted finally: Cooke, Christine Soeder (Aus), Emma Johansson (Swe) and Melanie Villumsen (Den). Significant by their absence were Germany and former world champion Marianne Vos (Netherlands). "I saw the group going away, but I was too far behind to react directly. To be honest, there was not much I had left."
Both Canadians were in similar straits to Vos.
"I was in good position, but it was a long climb and you need to have the legs for that," said Hobson. "I wasn't at the front when it happened, and on the descent the Germans were drilling it, so no attacks were possible."
Willock: "When the Italian went was right after I had a close call and nearly went down. So I had lost a bunch of positions and there was no chance. But I'm still satisfied that I came into the race with good form, and gave it shot. Unfortunately, it was the way the day played out."
Cooke led the group across to Guderzo, and the gap went up to 12 seconds and then 16 with four kilometres to go. By the base of the final kilometre climb to the finish line it was approaching 20 seconds, so the race was down to these five.
Cooke set the pace all the way up the final 500 metres, with Johansson on her wheel but unable to come around, and Guderzo just behind.
"It's just like a dream come true, an amazing feeling. It has been a very long journey to get here since I started cycling. At this point, all I am feeling is joy, I don't think it has fully sunk in. I still feel like the normal old Nicole that I was before the start of the race."
- This was Leigh Hobson's final race, and it took place on her birthday (the announcer wished her birthday greetings - how often do you get birthday greetings while competing at the Olympics...).
"My last race ... I don't think it has hit. I just am happy to have experienced it [the Olympics], and I will take away how amazing an event it is for everyone involved. I did everything I could, but unfortunately it was not enough for a medal. I gave everything, so I can't be dissatisfied."
- This was the first Olympic gold for Wales since 1972.
- There were inevitable comments and questions about Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli (France), who is competing in her seventh Olympics at the age of 49. The four time medalist was right in the action, but suffered from the wet and cold like many riders. She still hasn't announced her retirement...
- Cooke was asked during the press conference what she thought about the discrepancy between the the number of riders per team for men and women (five for the top men and only three for women). "You're right about that [being unfair], but I think that there is even more inequality with the number of medal events, seven for women and, I think 11, for men."
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