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Olympics: Tyler and crew ready to roll

With just three days until the first of 18 cycling gold medals are handed out at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Tyler Hamilton and the rest of the U.S. team were set to get their first look at the Olympic road race course late Wednesday afternoon. But no matter what they found on the streets of the downtown Athens course, both the men’s and women’s squads like their chances. Six of the team’s eight riders spent part of the afternoon in the International Zone (where the media is allowed) at the Olympic Village, doing interviews. Hamilton was the first to show up, and says that though

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

The U.S. women's road team.

The U.S. women’s road team.

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With just three days until the first of 18 cycling gold medals are handed out at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Tyler Hamilton and the rest of the U.S. team were set to get their first look at the Olympic road race course late Wednesday afternoon. But no matter what they found on the streets of the downtown Athens course, both the men’s and women’s squads like their chances.

Six of the team’s eight riders spent part of the afternoon in the International Zone (where the media is allowed) at the Olympic Village, doing interviews. Hamilton was the first to show up, and says that though he’s still bumped and bruised from his crash at last month’s Tour de France, he’s feeling a lot better.

Hamilton's back bears the scars of the Tour.

Hamilton’s back bears the scars of the Tour.

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“I had a week off after the crash, and since then I’ve had two-and-a-half weeks of solid training,” Hamilton said. “If anything [the crash] may have helped. I was out of the Tour so fast, I’m feeling pretty fresh.”

On tap Saturday for Hamilton, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer and Jason McCartney are 17 laps around a 13.2km circuit (224.4km total) that is being described as deceptively hard. There’s only one real climb of consequence, but lots of tricky turns and the heat will likely break things up before the end. Veteran race announcer Paul Sherwen got a look at the course earlier in the week and predicted that three to five riders would likely make the final selection.

“It’s a lot tougher than people think,” Sherwen said. “There’s a lot of corners in the climb so it’s going to be hard to build any momentum.”

Sherwen didn’t tab a single rider for gold, but instead predicted that that Spain, with Alejandro Valverde, who won three stages and theoverall ranking in the Vuelta a Burgos last week, Oscar Freire andworld road race champion Igor Astarloa, could be the team to beat. Other names that can’t be ignored are Germany’s Jan Ullrich, Italy’s Paolo Bettini and Australian Stuart O’Grady.

Ullrich is the reigning Olympic champion, Bettini is likely Italy’s strongest gold medal hope, and O’Grady is fresh off his first ever World Cup win.

“I’m in great form, but I certainly don’t want the team to shut down for me,” O’Grady told AFP. “Robbie McEwen is a fantastic one day rider, he’s one of the best in world. [Baden Cooke] can win just about any race. [Michael Rogers] is world time trial champion and Matt White is one of the best domestiques in the world.”

But while the U.S. riders acknowledge that the field is stacked, they’re definitely planning on being in the mix.

“I think Spain, Italy, the Germans and the Aussies could all be there,” said Hincapie. “But we’ve got an awfully strong team too.”

None of the riders seemed too concerned about the heat, despite daytime temperatures that regularly climb into the 90s. It helps that Hamilton and Hincapie train in Spain, while Julich is coming in from Nice in France.

“It’s hot where I live and I’m just coming off San Sebastian, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem at all,” said Julich. “You just got to pay attention to eating and drinking.”

As for what team strategy will be, Julich said it hadn’t been discussed yet, but the way he saw any of the five could be in the mix at the end.

“We’ve got five wild cards the way I see it,” he said. “We don’t really have a sprinter, so you don’t want to pigeon hole yourself. I think each of us will do our own race.”

As for the U.S. women, they got in a training ride with the men this morning, heading east out near the Olympic marathon course. It was good prep for their race, which will be run Sunday and broadcast live in the U.S. on the USA Network.

“It’s really exciting,” said Dede Barry, who along with Kristin Armstrong and Christine Thorburn, will contest the nine-lap, 118.8km race. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen out there. The hills aren’t crazy hard, but I think the heat could be pretty selective in our race. We start right in the heat of the day and it’s only three-rider teams, so it’s going to be hard to control.”

Following the women’s road race, cycling at the Olympics will take a two-day break before reconvening for the time trial on August 18. Julich and Hamilton have been tabbed as the two U.S. men that will take part. Barry is in for the women, with the second spot likely to be decided by the end of this week. Both Thorburn and Armstrong are hoping to get the call.

“It’s definitely on my mind,” said Armstrong. “It’s one of my favorite events.”

You might think Thorburn has the edge being the reigning national champion, a win that also earned her an Olympic spot. But Armstrong thinks she’s just as deserving.

“By the criteria they put out it should be me,” said Armstrong. “It supposed to be based on international results and that favors me. At the same time I’m a big supporter of Christine. She’s a great rider.”

Teammates in '05?

Teammates in ’05?

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OLYMPIC NOTES
Hamilton on Oscar
Hamilton said his main feeling was sadness when he learned of the positive dope test and subsequent retirement of Phonak teammate Oscar Camenzind.

“Obviously I don’t support the decision he made, but I do support him as a person,” Hamilton said. “The guy had a great heart and his feet were always planted on the ground.”

As for the slew of doping stories swirling around his sport of late, Hamilton acknowledged that the net seems to be closing in.

“There’s been [doping] controls left and right lately,” he said. “I’ve been getting tested all the time. Just did one two days ago. It’s unfortunate for Oscar, but it’s good for the health of the sport. The team will go on.”

Speaking of the Phonak team, South African Robbie Hunter bumped into Hamilton at the Olympic Village on Wednesday and the pair had a quick, but frank conversation about the possibility of Hunter joining Phonak.

“I’m definitely not going to be back with Rabobank,” Hunter confirmed. “Phonak seems like a decent team, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Hunter and hunted
Hunter, who’s won stages in the Vuelta and Tour de Langkawi, figures despite their strength none of the big teams will be able to control the road race.

“That’s going to make it a hard day,” he said. “It’s going to be an attacking race. That gives a smaller country like South Africa a chance, so you never know what’s going to happen.”

McConneloug checks in
On the mountain-bike front, American Mary McConneloug checked in from Italy, where’s she’s doing final prep before heading east to Athens. It wasn’t until August 6 that McConneloug found out for sure that she was headed to Athens, but a court ruling in Denver put an end to Sue Haywood’s bid to have an arbitration ruling overturned, bringing an end to the lengthy selection team chase. “Mike and I are back in Riolo Terme,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It is great to ride on the small, winding and familiar roads and really fun to see our friends here. On top of the good, hard and focused training, our social calendar has been quite full… Since not many speak English here, mi Italiano and communicating charade skills have greatly improved.

“We will soon be off to race in Switzerland this weekend, then meet and stay with the rest of the U.S. Olympic team and staff in Venosc, France until the 23rd, which is when I will fly with the team to Athens and check in to the athlete village for five days.”

“I am very excited for the BIG race day…hoping to have the legs and luck I need to get on that podium.”

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