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By Fred Dreier
The Olympic peloton returns to the Juyongguan Pass sector of the Great Wall on Wednesday for a 23.5km individual time trial that has its ups and downs.
The circuit, which features a climb and descent just beneath the wall, proved the pivotal point in the weekend’s road races and will decide the victors once again on Wednesday. It begins with the gradual 12.5km climb up Badaling Pass, which averages just 4 percent as it winds to the summit. The ensuing descent, on a wide-open highway and into a headwind, is for power riders. Men race two laps, women one.
The 39-strong men’s field includes Saturday’s road champion, Samuel Sanchez of Spain, who outkicked his five breakaway companions to take his first Olympic medal.
But Sanchez is not Spain’s best hope for another victory. That honor goes to 2007 Tour de France champion, Alberto Contador, whose talents in the race against the clock shone in this year’s Giro d’Italia, which he also won. The Giro featured a climbing time trial on its 16th stage — a nasty 12km ascent of the super-steep Plan de Corones. Contador finished fourth on that stage and 11th in the final time trial to clinch the victory. None of the men who beat Contador on the Plan de Corones will start on Wednesday.
The man with the best shot at spoiling Contador’s party is reigning time-trial world champ Fabian Cancellara. Many thought a climber’s time trial might not benefit the beefy Swiss, whose big, powerful legs perform better on flat surfaces. But his impressive bronze-medal ride in the 245km road race showed that, on this course, he can climb with the world’s best.
Other candidates for the win include Australia’s Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, who will race despite a reported knee injury. American Levi Leipheimer, winner of last year’s final Tour de France TT, is another favorite, alongside Santiago Botero of Colombia and Russia’s Denis Menchov.
The man who could spoil the party for all of the favorites is Germany’s Stefan Schumacher, who took both time trials at this year’s Tour de France. Schumacher beat Cancellara by 21 seconds in the stage-20 time trial, and might have fresher legs than his Swiss rival, since he bailed out of the road race after being dropped on the fifth of seven circuit, citing heat and exhaustion.
Matias Medici of Argentina is the first man to hit the course at 1:30 p.m.
The women’s race features a tight battle between a handful of potential champions, including Sunday’s road race champion, Nicole Cooke of Great Britain.
Most eyes, however, will be on Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel, the world time-trial champion. Kupfernagel might not be able to climb with the best, but her power on the flats is virtually unmatched, and could be the deciding factor on the windy descent.
American Kristin Armstrong, the 2006 world time-trial champ, also comes in as a heavy favorite. The Boise, Idaho resident, who celebrated her 35th birthday on Monday, has kept the Olympic time trial in her sights since 2005.
Armstrong falls into the same class as Swiss rider Karin Thurig — she’s a climber who has the power to stay fast on the flats. Thurig took the time-trial world championship in 2005, and also competes in Ironman-length triathlons.
Other challengers include Christine Soeder of Austria, Susanne Ljungskog of Sweden, Christine Thorburn of the United States and Australia’s Oenone Wood.
Canada’s Alex Wrubleski is the first woman to hit the course at 11:30 a.m.
Stay tuned to www.velonews.com for news and updates from the Olympic road time trial.