Road-trial winners an unlikely lot


REDLANDS, Calif. -- Duplicating the setup of the Olympic road courses was easy. Now the trick for USA Cycling is figuring out how an inexperienced roster will handle the burden of performing on sport's elite stage.

The 18-rider U.S. cycling team won't be finalized until July 12, yet it's expected that only five of the riders likely to represent the U.S. in Athens will have any past Olympic experience.

"I don't know what the pressure will be like since it'll be my first one, too," U.S. women's road coach Jim Miller said. "I remember what it was like the first time I went to a world championships, and at the Olympics it'll probably be double. But it's a good team."

All three of the winners at the road trials, which ended Saturday, are not only Olympic-bound for the first time, but each also pulled off fairly surprising victories.

Men's road race winner Jason McCartney once abandoned cycling altogether, saying he was too burned out and beaten down to continue in the sport.

Women's time trial winner Christine Thorburn and women's road race winner Kristin Armstrong, of Boise, Idaho, both broke into the elite cycling scene just two years ago.

Armstrong's hope was to make the 2004 Olympics in the triathlon, but osteoarthritis in her hips ended that plan two years ago. So she was coaxed into cycling -- and only two years after competing against elite-level riders for the first time, she's an Olympic-bound national champion.

"The Olympics, man, I've been dreaming about that since I was a kid and it definitely tops it all," Armstrong said. "It hasn't hit me quite yet."

Saturday's trials represented the last chance for riders to make the team in road disciplines. Armstrong will join her T-Mobile teammate Dede Barry and Thorburn on the women's road team in Athens.

"I went to the 2000 Olympic trials in triathlon, but I knew that I was just a dark horse and knew my chance at the Olympics would be 2004 -- in triathlon," Armstrong said. "Then I was told I could no longer run, but cycling would be OK."

Turns out, that was the best advice she ever received.

"She had a huge motor when she starting racing her bike," Barry said. "She's a really sharp girl and she's picked this up really quick. She's got great racing instinct, she's tough and she's not afraid to take risks."

USA Cycling officials are confident that Thorburn, Armstrong and McCartney -- who dominated fields over courses remarkably similar to the road setups that will be used in Athens -- are the right riders to fill out the roster.

"Definitely, we've got more overall depth in the program than we had five or six years ago," U.S. Olympic cycling team leader Steve Johnson said. "With respect to the road team, I think we've
got some great riders with some great international experience. The courses here had profiles very similar to Athens."

The road selection races were the only true trials USA Cycling held this year; most of the roster spots are being filled by performances over the past year or international rankings.

Most of the Olympic experience on this year's roster will come from the men's road team, led by five-time defending Tour de France champion and 2000 bronze time trial medalist Lance Armstrong.

He'll be in the Olympics for the fourth time, as will his U.S. Postal Service teammate George Hincapie. And Tyler Hamilton, who won a stage of the Tour de France last year, will compete in the games for the second time.

Marty Nothstein, a two-time Olympic medalist who won the sprint gold in Sydney, is also expected to make the final track roster, as is Erin Mirabella -- who figures to be the only returning Olympian among the six U.S. women expected to be on this year's squad.

"I know what's out there," Miller said. "This is going to be a super-solid team."

The U.S. has three mountain bike spots, two for men and one for women, and it's presumed that they, too, will be filled by Olympic first-timers. Alison Dunlap, a two-time Olympic mountain bike team member, still has a mathematical chance of winning the spot, but her odds of nipping Sue Haywood or Mary McConneloug are slim.

"I think we've got some great young riders," Johnson said. "And they'll represent us well."