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VeloNews’ Fred Dreier arrives in Beijing with a lot of questions

The collective gaze of professional cycling has shifted from the scenic switchbacks on l’Alpe d’Huez to the hazy skies above China’s capital city of Beijing. Over the course of the next three weeks — August 8-24 — the world will watch as the top road, track, mountain and BMX cyclists compete for 18 gold medals.

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Will Pollution ruin the Games? Can anyone beat the Spanish? Will China rule MTB? How will BMX go over?

By Fred Dreier

The collective gaze of professional cycling has shifted from the scenic switchbacks on l’Alpe d’Huez to the hazy skies above China’s capital city of Beijing. Over the course of the next three weeks — August 8-24 — the world will watch as the top road, track, mountain and BMX cyclists compete for 18 gold medals.

While the Beijing “fog” may not evoke the same magical imagery and beauty as the Tour’s most famous climb, the soupy mix of humidity and smog might be just as decisive in the outcome of all the outdoor races. While the Chinese have taken huge steps to limit the amount of pollution in the air — shutting down all construction within city limits and restricting driving for three weeks — Beijing’s fickle skies have produced inconsistent quality. Two days before the August 8 opening ceremonies, blue skies prevailed. But the following day the soupy mist returned, as did the smell of exhaust.

With the men’s road race hitting the streets on August 9, the question will be whether one of the region’s frequent rain or wind storms can clean the air. It not, the thick air could likely affect the performances of the world’s top riders. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) retains the power to postpone an event in case of poor conditions. But many believe the IOC would balk at postponing an outdoor event due to pollution, choosing instead to appease the will of the Chinese government, which has repeatedly produced reports saying the air is getting cleaner.

But the pollution query is simply one of a number of questions facing the cycling world as it descends on Beijing for Games the XXIX Olympiad.

Can anyone top Spain?
The Spanish national team comes into the men’s road race as heavy favorites, with two Tour de France Champions in Carlos Sastre (’08) and Alberto Contador (’07), this year’s green jersey winner Oscar Freier, Tour stage winner Samuel Sanchez and the ace in the hole, two-time Liege-Bastogne-Liege champion Alejandro Valverde.

But with the Olympic format only allowing for five riders, not nine like at the world championships, it will be difficult for any single team to take control of the 248.5km, climb-heavy race. Valverde, who is hot off a win at last week’s Clasica San Sebastian, says he realizes the challenges.

“We’re one of the most important teams in the race but Germany and Italy are also strong,” he said. “And we have to remember this is not the world championships. It’s the Olympic Games, so it is completely different from other types of racing.”

Indeed the Italian team comes in with reigning Olympic champ Paolo Bettini leading Franco Pellizotti and Davide Rebellin, among others. Germany has strongmen Stefan Schumacher, Jens Voigt and Fabian Wegmann who might survive the climbs. Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen and brothers Frank and Andy Schleck could also be a threat. And the United States come in with Californian Levi Leipheimer — third at last year’s Tour — as a favorite.

Chinese trio on the mountain bike
The host nation’s best shot at Olympic gold in cycling is in the women’s cross-country mountain bike event. Chengyuan Ren, Jingjing Wang and Ying Liu burst onto the international stage in 2005, and in just three short years the trio have collected two U23 world titles (Ren ’06, Liu ’07) and a score of World Cup victories.

While the three lack the technical prowess of the sport’s all-stars, such as Irina Kalentieva, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå or Sabine Spitz, the Chinese girls have the powerful legs to thrive on Laoshan course, which is peppered with sharp climbs.

The Chinese sit firmly in the driver’s seat in Beijing because of their extensive knowledge of the Olympic mountain bike course. The women live a stone’s throw from the sandy course and have trained exclusively there for the past three years. Liu took home the victory at the 2007 Olympic mountain bike test event, which was held in September of last year.

In late May UCI officials armed with shovels and work crews added rocks, drops and other obstacles to the course in hopes of livening it up. Whether the added bumps slow China’s speedy three is a question left unanswered.

The emergence of BMX
Bicycle motocross, or BMX, makes its debut as an Olympic sport in 2008 with the United States a heavy favorite to take the gold. The IOC is not shy in admitting BMX’s inclusion as an Olympic sport is aimed at attracting the younger X-Games crowd. But unlike X-Games staples such as half-pipe skateboarding or surfing, BMX is decided by a simple rule — first man (or woman) across the line wins.

The sport comes into the Olympics at the expense of the men’s 1-kilometer time trial and the women’s 500-meter time trial events. The controversial choice effectively halved the number of events for female sprinters.

The traditional BMX courses underwent a major boost in brawn with its inclusion in the Olympics. Riders now descend a 26-foot tall ramp before heading out onto the course laden with bumps and berms. Riders catch plenty of air time en route to the finish line. Currently American Donny Robinson is ranked No. 1 in the world, with another American, Kyle Bennett, a close third.

But whether BMX makes a lasting impression on the psyche of the Olympics is another question left to be answered.