By John Wilcockson
In a long career at the elite level Lithuanian twin Rasa Polikeviciute has almost won a host of big races — a time-trial bronze medal at last year’s world’s, second at the women’s Tour de France in 1994 and ’96, a silver medal in the road race at the 1996 world’s, and third overall at this year’s Hewlett-Packard Challenge and the Tour of Tuscany. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, the 31-year-old sprinted to her own rainbow jersey in an ultimately exciting elite women’s 121km road race.
Polikeviciute knew she was in good form — fourth in the time trial on Wednesday — but as she said: “In the past I’ve always worked for the strongest on the team … Edita [Pucinskaite, the 1999 world champion] or Diana (Ziliute, champion in ’98]. This year, I was feeling strong and so it was decided that I should go with the attacks…. It was better to have two in a break, with more chance of winning a medal.”
So when Jeannie Longo — who once again was the strongest on the climbs — attacked on the main hill on the second-to-last lap, Polikeviciute and her teammate Pucinskaite both went with the French veteran. Also there were Switzerland’s Nicole Brändli, the Netherlands’ Mirjam Melchers, Germany’s Judith Arndt and Sweden’s Susanne Ljungskog. By the end of the lap, those seven riders were a minute clear of a chase group of six, which included Canada’s still-competitive Sue Palmer — who would go on to take 10th.
The seven leaders were still together approaching the top of the last climb, with 8km remaining. It was starting to look like nobody would move, but then Longo accelerated right at the corner where the biggest crowds had gathered. This time only the two Lithuanians could match Longo’s charge, and with a lead over the other four that never exceeded 13 seconds, all three had to work hard to ensure the break’s success.
None of the three is an expert sprinter, and Polikeviciute said she and Pucinskaite didn’t plan to collaborate in the sprint — “We’re on different trade teams in Italy,” she reminded us, Pucinskaite on Acca Due O-HP, her Lithuanian teammate on Alfa Lum. And so it was a fair sprint, one that Longo later regretted leading out. “I think I could have won if I hadn’t gone at 200 meters,” she revealed. But Longo’s second effort in the final 50 meters after the other two had passed her was too late coming, and Polikeviciute took the decision by about half a length from Pucinskaite, with Longo in third.
Rasa was a champion, at last.
Race noteThe best of the three American finishers was Southern Californian Amber Neben, riding her first world’s. She was involved in a crash on the first lap and chased back to the peloton; but she said she was cramping up when the attacks came on the last two laps. Even so, Neben came through to finish alone, 4:34 back, in 30th place — just ahead of two of the world’s top rider, Hanka Kupfernagel of Germany and Anna Millward of Australia.
1. Rasa Polikeviciute (Lit), 121km in 3:12:05 (37.796 kph); 2. Edita Pucinskaite; 3. Jeannie Longo, both s.t.; 4. Mirjam Melchers (Nl), at 0:06; 5. Nicole Brändli (Swi); 6. Susanne Ljungskog (S); 7. Judith Arndt (G), all s.t.; 8. Diana Ziliute (Lit), at 1:33; 9. Alessandra Cappellotto (I); 10. Sue Palmer (Can), both s.t.
Also: 30. Amber Neben (USA), at 4:34; 32. Anna Millward (Aus), at 6:27; 33. Anne Samplonius (Can), s.t.; 40. Kimberly Bruckner (USA), at 8:10; 43. Kimberly Smith (USA); 44. Cybil Di Guistini (Can), both s.t.; 45. Leah Goldstein (Can), at 11:37.