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Moments after finishing her seventh Olympic Games, Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli was asked the inevitable question.
Would she be back for an eighth Olympics in 2012 in London?
“Well, it rains a lot in London, just like today,” the 49-year-old coyly said after finishing a solid 24th at 33 seconds back in the women’s road race under torrential rain Sunday in Beijing.
With that non-denial denial, she left the door firmly wide open for a London appearance.
The idea that French cycling legend might be back for an eighth Olympic Games isn’t poppycock.
She was active throughout the women’s race Sunday, riding at the nose of the peloton during the 80km flats approaching two circuits over the Badaling Great Wall climb and then climbing at the front on the decisive final climb.
“Halfway through the race I took the lead of the peloton because my muscles were cold and I just wanted to get them going,” she said. “I didn’t just want to ride like a tourists until the final two laps on the climbs.”
Once the race heated up on two hard finishing loops, she only became dislodged with bronze medalist Tatiana Guderzo – who was born the very year Longo-Ciprelli made her Olympic debut in 1984 – surged alone over the summit only to be chased by gold medalist Nicole Cooke and three others.
Not bad for an athlete born in 1958, which for us in the U.S., was during the second Eisenhower administration.
It might be surprising to some that she’s still competitive at 49, but for her fans, it must be encouraging to see that her eccentricities show no signs of slowing down with old age.
Always known for her maverick ways, Longo-Ciprelli isn’t staying in the Athlete’s Village, preferring an apartment on the outskirts of Beijing.
She still lives near Grenoble, France, where her rural home is populated with a menagerie of cats, dogs, goats, birds and reportedly even an American bison.
When asked what her first impressions of Beijing were, she replied: “I’ve only seen two dogs and one cat, so I don’t like it very much yet.”
Among the French cycling community, Longo-Ciprelli is often vilified for single-handedly undermining an entire generation of French women’s cycling.
Every time she would officially retire, she would mount a comeback, win qualification for the Olympic Games or world championships, and grab a spot that her detractors say should go toward promoting younger talent looking to cut their teeth for future success.
Longo-Ciprelli durability is impressive.
She made her Olympic debut in 1984. By 1992, she roared into Barcelona as the heavy favorite, but misfired Kathy Watt stole her thunder. She claims she didn’t realized Watt was up the road.
In 1996, she got it right, striking gold in Atlanta along with silver in the individual time trial.
In 2000, she won her fourth Olympic medal with bronze in the time trial.
While some saw her presence in Beijing as a curiosity, Longo-Ciprelli was taking it very seriously.
A frequent visitor to Colorado, she trained at altitude in Colorado, New Mexico and even El Salvador to prepare for the humid and hot conditions in Beijing.
While men raced through a sauna on Saturday, rain, wind and cooler temperatures turned Sunday’s women’s race upside down.
Instead of sweltering in a heat bucket, riders were shivering and teeth chattering. Longo-Ciprelli was no exception.
“I prepared for the heat and humidity. I would have preferred conditions like the men had,” she said. “I can’t be dissatisfied with my performance. I haven’t felt this good for a long time. It gives me confidence for the time trial.”
Don’t count out Longo-Ciprelli for a medal on Wednesday. Many have done it before only to have to eat their words.