Leipheimer scores bronze.
By Fred Dreier
Fabian Cancellara’s finish-line salute at the end of Wednesday’s Olympic time trial erased any concerns that the big Swiss rider has lost his edge in the race against the clock. He rolled into the finishing straight with 33 seconds in his pocket over Swede Gustav Larsson, stopped pedaling, lifted his arm in a very un-aero fist and punched the air.
Just one month ago Cancellara lost both time trials at the Tour de France to Germany’s Stefan Schumacher. The two losses left some doubt that Cancellara — the two-time defending time-trial world champ — could earn his first taste of Olympic gold. But on a muggy day in China, which saw Schumacher crumble in the heat, Cancellara earned his redemption.
“This has been the focus for so long,” said Cancellara, who clocked a 1:02:11 over the 47.3km course. “I told myself that going home without the gold is a failure. I’ve prepared specifically for this race and made a lot of sacrifices. I’m here at the Olympics and you see a Swiss flag, you hear the anthem. What more do you want?”
Larsson, a teammate of Cancellara’s at team CSC-Saxo Bank was a surprise finisher in second with a 1:02:44, calling the ride “the most beautiful race I’ve done in my life.”
American Levi Leipheimer won a tight battle with Alberto Contador of Spain and Cadel Evans of Australia for the bronze.
“I pictured myself on the top step, but it’s fantastic to win a medal,” said Leipheimer. “You hear people say Gold, Silver, Bronze, it’s all good.”
The three grabbed the podium spots after Canadian Svein Tuft spent the lion’s share of the day in the hot seat. Tuft, who hails from Langley, British Columbia, powered through consistent time splits to finish in 1:04:39, which would hold on for seventh place.
Tuft’s time held on until Samuel Sanchez, winner of Saturday’s road race, set a new standard. But Sanchez was quickly unseated by Larsson, whose phenomenal ride appeared all but unbeatable.
Cancellara trailed Larsson’s time by six seconds at the top of the final descent, but pulled clear on the ensuing downhill. He said he knew Larsson would be a threat, as the big Swede told his CSC teammates at a pre-season training camp that the Olympic time-trial gold was his target for the season.
“This was a perfect parcours for me,” Larsson said. “I tried, but [Cancellara] was too strong.”
The win not only confirmed Cancellara’s place as the best time trial rider of this generation, it solved the question of which type of rider could win on the demanding circuit: a power rider who can climb.
Elite men spun two laps of the Badaling Pass circuit — the same one they faced seven times in Saturday’s road race. The circuit opens with the steady 12km ascent up the 1000-foot high Badaling Pass, then finishes with a gradual descent on a wide-open highway.
The course had both climbers and power riders scratching their heads to figure out who had the advantage.
After grimacing across the finish line having vomited in his mouth from the effort, American Dave Zabriskie said he thought the course was not ideal for time trial specialists.
“Maybe for a lighter type rider who could really kick it up the hill,” Zabriskie said.
But minutes later, a dejected Contador crossed the line having lost ample time on the course’s power descent. The fastest rider out of the gate, Contador had only the 15th fastest split on the final descent.
“It’s a circuit for riders who are heavier,” he said.
Indeed the circuit required a specific blend of climbing and power, and it also threw riders a curve ball when selecting their gearing. Cancellara won riding a 55×11 as his biggest gear, a fact that had Leipheimer dumbfounded.
“I thought about it for three days and chose the 55, and I could have gone with a 56 on that last descent,” he said. “I have no idea how [Cancellara] rode that fast with a 55. That’s impressive.”
Larsson said he ordered a special 58-tooth big chain ring, but it never showed up in the mail. He also tried unsuccessfully to find a 56, and instead opted for a 55.
“I felt I could have pedaled harder on the downhill,” he said. “But then I guess I would have not been able to ride uphill in the big ring. It’s give and take.”
Cancellara acknowledged the challenge of the course, calling it “not really a parcours for a time trial.” But the big Swiss rider said he did not let it throw him off of his game. Winning, he said, was the only option.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself for this race,” Cancellara said. “To go away from here with anything but a [gold medal] is like a loss me.”
Armstrong makes history
Cancellara took his win after Kristin Armstrong earned the United States its first-ever women’s gold medal in the road time trial. The road time trial debuted in Atlanta in 1996, and since then the United States has won two silver medals, with Mari Holden in 2000 and Dede Barry in 2004.
Armstrong’s victory is the first by an American woman in the sport of cycling — road, track or mountain bike — since Connie Carpenter-Phinney’s victory at the inaugural women’s road race in Los Angeles in 1984. Armstrong came into Beijing as a serious medal contender in the time-trial, having won bronze, gold and silver medals at the ’05, ’06 and ’07 world championships. Still, the Idahoan couldn’t contain her tears as she stepped onto the podium to accept her medal.
“It’s the ride of my life,” she said. “It’s what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. I am going to have to pinch myself right now.”
Armstrong and the 24 other women’s starters faced a single lap on the circuit, and awoke to find Beijing shrouded in a thick blanket of humidity after three days of relatively clear skies. Temperatures rose quickly as soon as the sun came out, and by the race’s 11:30 a.m. starting time, the thermometer read in the mid 80s. The heat, matched with the thick air, made for sweaty conditions.
Swiss rider Karin Thurig, who is also a world-class competitor in Ironman triathlons, likened the conditions to those found on the big island of Hawaii, site of the Ironman world championships.
“Except in Hawaii I am not seeing stars after [the race],” said Thurig after finishing. “For the spectators and television [the course] is beautiful to watch. I suffered today and couldn’t enjoy it.”
Emma Pooley of Great Britain was just the fifth rider to attack the course, and posted a blistering time of 35:16. The blond, 25-year-old, who helped compatriot Nicole Cooke grab gold in Sunday’s road race, flew up the climb in 20:46, the fastest ascent of the day. The time withstood challenges from the biggest names in the sport, including Thurig, Marianne Vos, Jeannie Longo and defending champ Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel.
Armstrong took to the course sixth from last, and trailed the short brit by four seconds at the summit. But the much bigger American poured on the power on the descent, putting 24 clicks into Pooley by the race’s finish.
Armstrong said an Olympic medal first became an attainable goal in her mind after she finished third at the world time-trial championships in 2005. After winning the prize in 2006, she said, Olympic gold became the objective.
And now that she’s won, Armstrong said it’s time to celebrate.
“I’ve been living in this little bubble here, and I’m looking to going back to Boise to celebrate,” she said. “I can’t think about [cycling] right now. I’m ready to sit back and relax and enjoy the moment.”
? Armstrong’s compatriot Christine Thorburn finished fifth, missing a medal by just four seconds. In 2004 Thorburn finished fourth. The Californian said she had been receiving radio splits for the first half of the race, but her radio died on the descent, and she had no idea she was so close to the podium.
? Leipheimer said that missing this year’s Tour de France after his Astana team was denied entry may have hurt his form for the road race, but it helped him in the time trial.
“I suffered in the road race. I had the freshness but the other guys had strength on the last lap,” Leipheimer said. “I was riding purely on adrenaline. For the time trial I think it was an advantage to not have the tour in my legs.”
? Schumacher had no explanation for his poor finish in 13th place. “After five kilometers I was already struggling to keep a good pace,” he said.
2008 Olympic Time Trial
1. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), 47km in 1:02:11.43 (45.6kph)
2. Gustav Larsson (Sweden), at 33.36
3. Levi Leipheimer (USA), at 1:09.68
4. Alberto Contador (Spain), at 1:18.08
5. Cadel Evans (Australia), at 1:23.54
6. Samuel Sanchez (Spain), at 2:25.81
7. Svein Tuft (Canada), at 2:28.01
8. Michael Rogers (Australia), at 2:35.42
9. Stef Clement (Netherlands), at 2:47.99
10. Robert Gesink (Netherlands), at 2:51.45
11. Steve Cummings (Great Britain), at 2:56.48
12. David Zabriskie (USA), at 3:06.39
13. Stefan Schumacher (Germany), at 3:13.95
14. Bert Grabsch (Germany), at 3:14.77
15. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), at 3:24.58
16. Ryder Hesjedal (Canada), at 3:30.90
17. Rein Taaramae (Estonia), at 3:35.90
18. Vladimir Karpets (Russia), at 3:40.95
19. Chris Anker Soerensen (Denmark), at 3:43.99
20. Denis Menshov (Russia), at 3:59.11
21. Vasil Kiryienka (Belarus), at 4:00.76
22. Marzio Bruseghin (Italy), at 4:09.52
23. Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), at 4:18.20
24. Andrey Mizurov (Kazakhstan), at 4:20.62
25. Santiago Botero (Colombia), at 4:24.00
26. Maxime Monfort (Belgium), at 5:01.28
27. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hungary), at 5:16.06
28. Simon Spilak (Slovenia), at 5:23.43
29. Matej Jurco (Slovakia), at 5:41.49
30. Matias Medici (Argentina), at 5:41.66
31. David George (RSA), at 5:43.78
32. Andriy Grivko (Ukraine), at 5:49.82
33. Brian Bach Vandborg (Denmark), at 5:58.77
34. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Poland), at 6:32.00
35. Hossein Askari (Iran), at 6:34.87
36. Raivis Belohvosciks (Latvia), at 6:43.53
37. Denys Kostyuk (Ukraine), at 6:52.61
38. Matija Kvasina (Croatia), at 6:55.06
39. Fumiyuki Beppu (Japan), at 8:53.71
1. Kristin Armstrong (United States), 23.5km in 34:51:7 (40.459kph)
2. Emma Pooley (Great Britain), at 0:24.3
3. Karin Thurig (Switzerland), at 0:59.3
4. Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli (France), at 1:00.9
5. Christine Thorburn (United States), at 1:02.5
6. Judith Arndt (Germany), at 1:08.1
7. Christiane Soeder (Austria), at 1:29.0
8. Priska Doppmann (Switzerland), at 1:36.1
9. Zulfiya Zabirova (Kazakhstan), at 1:37.8
10. Susanne Ljungskog (Sweden), at 1:41.8
11. Hanka Kupfernagel (Germany), at 1:43.4
12. Tatiana Guderzo (ItalyItaly), at 1:46.3
13. Linda Melanie Villumsen Serup (Denmark), at 1:58.9
14. Marianne Vos (Netherlands), at 2:07.0
15. Nicole Cooke (Great Britain), at 2:22.6
16. Natalia Boyarskaya (Russia), at 2:22.9
17. Min Gao (China), at 2:23.5
18. Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel (Netherlands), at 2:59.9
19. Marta Vilajosana (Spain), at 3:03.3
20. Maryline Salvetat (France), at 3:18.0
21. Emma Johansson (Sweden), at 3:37.1
22. Oenone Wood (Australia), at 4:01.8
23. Edita Pucinskaite (Lithuania), at 4:03.7
24. Alexandra Wrubleski (Canada), at 4:23.7
25. Lang Meng (China), at 5:59.9