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By Justin Davis – Agence France Presse
A combination of timing, tactics and sheer leg power on a climb that will be raced seven times during the men’s Olympic road race is a must for any cyclist aiming for gold in Beijing.
But the climbers in the peloton will do better if they can also close out the day with a formidable sprint.
The men’s Olympic road race will finish near the Great Wall on August 9 and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde will be hoping to live up to his childhood nickname of El Imbatido (the unbeaten one) when he challenges Italy’s formidable reigning champion Paolo Bettini.
Valverde’s rate of success since his prolific teenage years, when he is said to have claimed 50 consecutive wins between the ages of 11 and 13, may have slowed down considerably. But going into Beijing the reigning Spanish champion has more than one reason to believe he can finally land a major international crown.
First off, Valverde can climb.
His first big climbing demonstration of the season came at the prestigious Belgian one-day classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in April.
Sandwiched in between Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck and Italian Davide Rebellin on the 12th and final climb of the 261km race Valverde timed a winning sprint leading to the finish line to perfection.
Valverde’s second career victory in Liege looked promising ahead of the Tour de France where, after a sixth place finish in 2007, he was tipped for a podium place or even better.
The curly-haired Spaniard did not achieve that aim. But a lightning start to July’s three-week epic showed why Valverde’s abilities should not be ignored .
With the finish line of the first stage placed strategically atop the Cadoudal climb, last gasp drama was always guaranteed. Luxemburger Kim Kirchen launched a late bid for victory that looked full of promise until the camera panned to a small group in his wake and from which Valverde shot out like a bullet.
In a matter of seconds the Spaniard closed a 100-meter gap, raced past the tiring Kirchen and on towards the stage win and the yellow jersey.
“At the end it was a case of calculating the distance and the timing, and I got it right,” said Valverde rather modestly.
The 248.5km Olympic road race course is predominantly hilly, with little opportunity for rest. A race of attrition ? on what has been described as one of the toughest ever Olympic cycling courses ? is likely.
Crucially, the finish line is on an uphill section meaning that those who want to counter the likes of Valverde will have to surprise him and attack. Otherwise, being able to climb fast and put in a ‘punch’ of acceleration at the critical moment will be the key.
Valverde has twice come close to being crowned world road race champion, only to be beaten by a surprise attack from compatriot Igor Astarloa, in 2003, then by Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen, in 2005.
After three weeks on the roads of France, he is in prime condition to aim for a first major crown.
Ahead of his flight out with the Spanish delegation on Sunday, he said: “I have an appointment to fulfill a dream ? to be in the Olympics.”
Each team in the road race is composed of five riders. Valverde will have the support, among others, of new Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, as well as last year’s winner Alberto Contador.