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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
The contrast couldn’t have been greater as the latest batch of cycling medalists faced the media shortly after the conclusion of the women’s Olympic road race on the downtown streets of Athens on Sunday.
In the center seat of the raised podium sat Sara Carrigan, a starry gaze striped across her youthful face. Moments earlier the Aussie had grabbed gold, after pushing away from Judith Arndt on the last lap of the 118.8km race. Meanwhile, Arndt looked downright disgusted despite the silver medal swinging from her neck. The German was still seething over the Olympic-team exclusion of former Saturn teammate Petra Rossner, widely considered the world’s top female sprinter.
The pair had also chosen distinctly different finishing salutes at the race’s conclusion; Carrigan thrusting her arms in the air to celebrate victory, followed by Arndt casting up her middle finger in the direction of the German cycling federation, which had snubbed her good friend.
It was that difference, a team united against one divided, that may well have decided this tough race run in the shadows of Athens’ great monuments. Carrigan’s Australian squad had played its hand perfectly, landing two riders in the break that would eventually launch her to victory. But only Arndt made that decisive group, while teammate Angela Brodtka, who was chosen over Rossner, had crashed late and landed on the DNF list.
“It was a perfect job by the team,” said the 23-year-old Carrigan, who was contesting her first big race in more than two months after spending the bulk of the summer doing Olympic-specific altitude training in the mountains of northern Italy. “We had Oenone [Wood] in the break, so if it had been a bunch sprint it would have been her because she is such an awesome sprinter.”
Indeed, after Carrigan attacked the final group, which included Arndt, Wood, Brit Nicole Cooke, Dutchwoman Mirjam Melchers, Spain’s Joane Somarirba and eventual bronze medalist Olga Slyusareva, the reaction was slow, with no one interested in towing Wood to the front. Finally Arndt took off alone, but with Wood lurking behind, the German was forced to do the bulk of the work as the two drove for home. On the long run into the finish Arndt barely gave a fight, while Carrigan sailed away for the win.
“If Petra was there, we would have raced differently, more aggressive,” said Arndt. “Petra is the best sprinter and maybe we would have won gold.”
The early portions of the race were run at a leisurely pace, as the small three-rider teams looked to conserve energy for when the real racing began. Just as with the men’s race a day earlier, it was a scorcher of a day in Athens.
The first attack of consequence came courtesy of Eneritz Iturriaga, who jumped away during the fourth of nine laps around the twisting 13.2km circuit. The Spaniard jumped during the climb up the course’s lone substantial climb, the steep grind up Lycabetous Hill. At the end of the fourth lap Iturriaga’s advantage was 1:13 on the field, with Brazilian Janildes Fernand Silva dangling in between, 41 seconds back of Iturriaga.
But with the wind blowing strong, neither rider stood much chance out there alone, and the race was all back together by the end of the fifth lap, 66km into the race.
Famed Frenchwoman Jennie Longo’s troops were the next to take up the fight, courtesy of teammate Sonia Huguet. But that move brought the Canadian team to life, with Lyne Bessette and then teammate Sue Palmer-Komar each taking shots. Bessette was too dangerous to be ignored, but the counter by Palmer-Komar initially stuck, and the 29-year-old had built a 50-second advantage when the lap card was turned to two.
The race’s next big moment came courtesy of 2000 triple-gold medalist Leontien Ziljaard-van Moorsel. But this time the Dutchwoman wouldn’t be providing any heroics. Instead she touched wheels with Iturriaga, then slid down hard on the pavement within sight of the start/finish at the end of the seventh lap. With nowhere to go, Swiss rider Nicole Brandli came tumbling down on top of Ziljaard-van Moorsel, who also took out Bessette.
“I don’t know how I missed them,” said American Christine Thorburn, who ended up 15th at 1:18. “I came so close. I literally rode between her legs and her bike.”
Bessette and Brandli managed to right themselves, but Ziljaard-van Moorsel stayed down and was eventually taken away on a stretcher. Word came later that she is now doubtful for Wednesday’s time trial, an event she won four years ago in Sydney.
“She is badly injured,” read a statement from Dutch team doctor Tjeerd de Vries. “We will exam her every day and see if it is possible for her to ride.”
The injury list for Ziljaard-van Moorsel included bruising to her shoulder, elbow and hip.
Back at the front Palmer-Komar was suffering alone in the heat, and she was soon swept up by the final group, led by Wood, Melchers, Cooke and Somarriba. Behind them Carrigan was in full TT mode and had latched on by the time the bell rung for the final lap.
Initially the lead move looked like it had lost its steam, as American Kristin Armstrong was leading the fractured peloton in the chase. But while Armstrong would eventually get across and grab a commendable eighth, Carrigan’s attack just after they crossed the line for the penultimate time would hold off the main field, which ended up at 1:18.
That left the day to the Aussie and Arndt, but by the time the came to the 1km to go it was clear Carrigan had made the perfect move.
“Our team got a gold and that was our whole objective,” said Wood, the current World Cup leader. “We set up the race perfectly, and Sara delivered.”
Armstrong was the top North American finisher in eighth, followed by Canadian Palmer-Komar (11th), Thorburn (15th), Dede Barry (16th), Manon Jutras (30th), Mexican Belem Mendez (46th). Bessette was a DNF.
Just like with the men’s race, crowds outside of the start/finish area were thin, and there were long stretches of empty barriers. But this was a theme that ran beyond the cycling events during the first weekend of the Olympics. Attendance at many of the opening events has been low. Even U.S. tennis superstar Venus Williams played an opening-round match in front of a sparse crowd on Saturday.
Initially Arndt denied the unseemly finishing salute, but photos plus a fine of 200 Swiss francs confirmed the incident.
To see how today’s race developed, simply open our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.
1. Sara Carrigan (Australia) 3:24:24 (34.873kph)
2. Judith Arndt (Germany), at 0:07
3. Olga Slyusareva (Russia), at 0:39
4. Oenone Wood (Australia)
5. Nicole Cooke (Great Britain)
6. Mirjam Melchers (Netherlands), at 0:42
7. Joane Somarriba Arrola (Spain)
8. Kristin Armstrong (USA)
9. Edita Pucinskaite (Lithuania), at 0:46
10. Jeannie Longo Ciprelli (France), at 0:59
11. Susan Palmer-Komar (Canada), at 1:13
12. Olivia Gollan (Australia), at 1:18
13. Noemi Cantele (Italy)
14. Anita Valen (Norway)
15. Christine Thorburn (USA)
16. Deirdre Demet-Barry (USA)
17. Joanne Kiesanowski (New Zealand)
18. Priska Doppmann (Switzerland)
19. Zinaida Stahurskaya (Belarus)
20. Miho Oki (Japan)
21. Sharon Vandromme (Belgium)
22. Rachel Heal (Great Britain)
23. Iryna Chuzhynova (Ukraine)
24. Christiane Soeder (Austria)
25. Trixi Worrack (Germany)
26. Tatiana Guderzo (Italy)
27. Malgorzata Wysocka (Poland)
28. Barbara Heeb (Switzerland)
29. Rasa Polikeviciute (Lithuania)
30. Manon Jutras (Canada)
31. Jolanta Polikeviciute (Lithuania)
32. Edwige Pitel (France)
33. Susanne Ljungskog (Sweden)
34. Eneritz Iturriaga Mazaga (Spain), at 4:15
35. Evelyn Garcia Marroquin (El Salvador)
36. Nataliya Kachalka (Ukraine)
37. Giorgia Bronzini (Italy)
38. Nicole Brandli (Switzerland)
39. Zoulfia Zabirova (Russia)
40. Sonia Huguet (France), at 6:06
41. Miyoko Karami (Japan)
42. Bogumila Matusiak (Poland), at 7:31
43. Valentyna Karpenko (Ukraine), at 9:11
44. Yunjuan Qian (China)
45. Volha Hayeva (Belarus)
46. Belem Guerrero Mendez (Mexico)
47. Junying Zhang (China)
48. Lene Byberg (Norway)
49. Madeleine Lindberg (Sweden)
50. Maria Dolores Molina (Guatemala), at 16:19
51. Songhee Han (Korea)
52. Martina Ruzickova (Czech Republic)
53. Linn Torp (Norway)
54. Janildes Fernand Silva (Brazil)
55. Anriette Schoeman (South Africa)
56. Michelle Hyland (New Zealand)
DNF Angela Brodtka (Germany)
DNF Svetlana Boubnenkova (Russia)
DNF Dori Ruano Sanchon (Spain)
DNF Anouska Van Der Zee (Netherlands)
DNF Lyne Bessette (Canada)
DNF Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel (Netherlands)
DNF Camilla Larsson (Sweden)
DNF Sara Symington (Great Britain)
DNF Melissa Holt (New Zealand)
DNF Lada Kozlikova (Czech Republic)
DNF Maaris Meier (Estonia)