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Olympic Notebook: Sydney’s golden girl ready for Athens

Four years ago she was the toast of Olympic cycling, after winning three gold medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney. But this time around Dutchwoman Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel brings more modest goals to the Games in Greece, where she’ll focus on the time trial and individual pursuit. “I don’t want to take too many risks [in the road race] because the other races are more important to me,” said Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, three days before the women’s cycling events kicked off with the 118.8km road race in downtown Athens on Sunday. “The individual pursuit is my first aim for sure. That’s what I

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

The U.S. team addresses the media.

The U.S. team addresses the media.

Photo:

Four years ago she was the toast of Olympic cycling, after winning three gold medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney. But this time around Dutchwoman Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel brings more modest goals to the Games in Greece, where she’ll focus on the time trial and individual pursuit.

“I don’t want to take too many risks [in the road race] because the other races are more important to me,” said Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, three days before the women’s cycling events kicked off with the 118.8km road race in downtown Athens on Sunday. “The individual pursuit is my first aim for sure. That’s what I like the most in cycling at this moment. I have trained a lot, especially for that discipline.”

As for the road race, Zijlaard-Van Moorsel points to teammate Mirjam Melchers as the woman to watch. In Sydney the roles were reversed, as Melchers served as the Dutch team’s top lieutenant, hauling in several mid-race breaks and keeping the pace high enough to tender up the legs of some of the sprinters. That left the finish to Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, who took off to the line at the 250-meter mark, and outgunned German Hanka Kupfernagel for gold.

“Mijam is our favorite this time,” Zijlaard-Van Moorsel said of the 2004 Olympic race. “I hope that I can help her as much as she did four years ago. We want the gold medal to stay on our team. That would be great.”

Even if Zijlaard-Van Moorsel didn’t plan on riding for her teammate, the 34-year old thinks the odds of another three-gold performance would be long.

“I think it is not possible to do that again,” she admitted. “I can’t describe how I felt at that time. My conditional was sensational. I don’t feel like that anymore.”

Zijlaard-Van Moorsel also acknowledged that the Games in Greece would mark the end of her illustrious career. “This will be the end for sure,” she said. “One more job to do and then it’s over.”

Crash test
With training on the road course for both the men and women in the books, the most frequently heard assessment focused on the course’s carnage potential.

At the U.S. road team unveiling here in Athens Thursday evening, all eight members gathered in a fourth floor conference room spoke of the danger that lurked ahead.

“It’s unfortunate but I think we’re going to have a lot of crashing,” said Bobby Julich, who will race in the first cycling event of the Games on Saturday starting at 12:45 p.m. local time. “At least the roads are pretty smooth so if you do go down, hopefully you’ll be able to pop back up and jump back in.”

One of the prominent features of the course is its proximity to some of Athens’ greatest landmarks; the start is in front of City Hall in Kotzia Square, and the cobbled section runs along the base of the famed Acropolis.

“I think when the put it together they may have been more worried about getting monuments in all the TV shots than worrying about the riders,” said U.S. women’s team coach Jim Miller. “It’s a very technical course.”

U.S. Postal man George Hincapie took it a step further, calling the course “very dangerous.”

“I think the people who made it just weren’t thinking about the riders at all,” he said. “The road surface is like black ice, there’s oil everywhere, and there’s all these tricky descents where the course could have gone straight but instead it’s left, right, left, right.”

Tougher testing?
Doping has been on the minds of many in the cycling world as of late. Reigning world time trial champion David Millar was the biggest newsmaker, but the busts of Oscar Camenzind and Dave Bruylandts have kept drug stories in the cycling headlines. So does this mean there’s been a change at the top-level of competitive cycling?

“Definitely,” said Julich. “It’s about time they are coming up with controls and having the guts to call higher-status guys positive. The testing has changed a lot this year. It’s pretty ironic that it’s just recently that all these high-profile guys are testing positive, when before you might not have even known about [a positive]. I mean Millar is a close friend of mine, but we’ve all got to play by the same rules and I think finally that is happening.”

TT tumult
There was definitely some discontent among the U.S. women’s team ranks after a USA Cycling committee tabbed Christine Thorburn for the final time trial spot ahead of Kristin Armstrong. Both Armstrong and team coach Miller said they didn’t agree with the decision.

“I wasn’t on the committee, I just presented info,” said Miller, who also serves as coach of Armstrong’s T-Mobile team. “But no I didn’t agree with the decision. I guess they gave the most weight to the fact that Christine was the national time trial champion.”

It was that fact that burned Armstrong the most.

“The way I read it, that wasn’t supposed to be part of the criteria,” she said. “But that’s what they used. Right now I just have to get over it and put my energy into the road race.”

Wohlberg in for TT
Longtime U.S. domestic pro Eric Wolhberg has been tabbed as a late addition to the Olympic time trial, according to a report on CanadianCyclist.com. Originally the Canadian team did not have a place in the August 18 event, but several countries are using only one of their two allotted spots opening the door for Wohlberg.

“The UCI informed us that a spot was available,” said team manager Sean O’Donnell. “Eric will represent Canada. And yes, he did bring his time trial bike.”