Tour of Beijing preview: Olympic champ Sánchez back on gold-medal winning turf

BEIJING (VN) — Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) lines up Wednesday for the inaugural Tour of Beijing as one of the star riders, but he didn't want to start as the No. 1 bib.

Tour of Beijing riders on a training ride Monday. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

BEIJING (VN) — Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) lines up Wednesday for the inaugural Tour of Beijing as one of the star riders, but he didn’t want to start as the No. 1 bib.

Since it’s the first-ever edition of the race, organizers thought it was only appropriate to give the defending Olympic champion the No. 1 honorary designation.

Related: Start list (pdf)

But Sánchez didn’t want any of it. Instead, he chose number 8, the same number he rode to victory in the Olympic road race in 2008.

Sánchez got his wish and will start with the No. 8 in Wednesday’s time trial opener. Teammate Igor Antón will ride with the No. 1 bib during the five-day race in and around Beijing.

Sánchez is one of the top names among the 19-team start list that includes eight-man rosters. All 18 ProTeams are lining up as well as the Chinese national team.

Two teams will be down one rider. Garmin-Cervelo’s Matt Wilson broke his hand in a training crash on oil-slicked roads Tuesday and HTC-Highroad’s Matt Brammeier was too late in trying to secure a visa to travel to China.

Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) will be among the favorites for victory. The German will be showing off his new world time trial jersey for the first time since winning in Copenhagen and could take enough gains in Wednesday’s TT to contend for final victory.

David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo), Steve Cummings and Chris Froome (Sky), Tour of Britain winner Lars Boom (Rabobank) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas) are other top names who could be in the hunt for victory.

Anticipation is high among the pros about what lies in store in the coming days.

Riders who have made the long trip to China said they’re curious about racing in the Asian powerhouse.

Several riders here got a taste during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the open-road racing over the next five days will have a much different feeling.

The race opens with a flat, 11.3km individual time trial around Beijing’s Olympic park. The course starts outside the distinctive Bird’s Nest stadium and features long, straight stretches over flat, wide-open roads as the course pushes north throughout the Olympic Park. It sweeps back south and ends in front of the Water Cube swimming facility used during the Olympics.

The 137km second stage from Beijing to Men Tou Gou should see a sprint finish, starting again in front of the Bird’s Nest stadium. The course loops north of Beijing before hitting three passages on a 21km circuit. A third-category climb is tackled four times, with the final passage at 14.5km from the line, nothing that should slow down the sprinters in the bunch.

The 162km third stage is the tour’s “queen stage,” featuring one second-category and three first-category climbs from Men Tou Gou to Yong Ning. The route rolls into the Xi Mountains, sweeping close but not crossing the Great Wall of China and the 2008 Olympics road race course. Instead, it swings east before driving north for two Cat. 1s in the closing 40km in the Jundu Mountains.

The final summit comes 12km from the line, ideal for strong downhill finishers like Sánchez and Damiano Cunego (Lampre).

The 189.5km fourth stage from Yanqing to the Shunyi Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Center is the race’s longest. Two third-category and one second-category climb spice things up in the second half, but it’s mostly flat in the closing 40km to give teams a chance to reel in breakaways to set up a sprint.

The 118km finale starts in Tiananmen Square, right in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City. The pancake-flat stage loops north back to the Olympic Park and finishes with 12 passages on a 12km circuit. The race ends in front of the Water Cube.

Officials are not sure what to expect in terms of the public. China is celebrating its national holidays this week and Beijing is overflowing with tourists.

Whether they turn up to watch the bike race remains to be seen.