Tyler Hamilton finishes a tired 18th


ATHENS, Greece -- The five members of Team USA barely noticed the Parthenon as they whipped by it at almost 40 kms an hour. And as its white fa├žade turned a deep orange in the gaze of the setting sun, they were gathered in their tent, recovering from the men's cycling road race.

Levi Leipheimer and Jason McCartney were already dressed, early victims of the searing Athens heat that reached 93 degrees during the event and turned the lingering pollution into a suffocating haze. George Hincapie was rehydrating after cramping up down the stretch. Tyler Hamilton was icing his leg. Bobby Julich was just plain beat.

None of them had a medal in his possession.

It turned out Lance was right.

Lance Armstrong, who was feted in Austin, Texas, on Friday night for his record-breaking sixth Tour de France title, was criticized for pulling out of the Olympics during the final stages of the Tour in favor of rest and relaxation.

However, three weeks between the end of a last-man-standing race like the Tour de France and the start of a 17-lap, 224.4 km, multidisciplined gutcheck like the Olympics is too long for a cyclist to hold on to peak condition. It's even more difficult for riders who spend most of the Tour in front of the pack.

As a result, Armstrong's fellow Americans and other top Tour competitors were struggling to keep up with Italian one-day-race wonder Paolo Bettini, who won the gold medal with a time of 5:41:44.

"I don't think the Tour is the best preparation, not in our situation," said Hincapie, the only Tour teammate of Armstrong's on Team USA. "We didn't really get a chance to rest. We're always at the front. It's been six times with Lance. And riding with Lance is a great honor."

Hamilton was the top U.S. finisher, in 18th place, followed by Hincapie in 24th and Julich in 28th, all in a pack 12 seconds behind Bettini. Julich and Leipheimer also competed in the Tour de France. Hamilton pulled out during Stage 13 after suffering a back injury during a crash in Stage 6.

The U.S. riders were in contention until Bettini and Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, the silver medallist, broke away from the pack during the 15th lap. The pair also passed eventual bronze medallist Axel Merckx, of Belgium, whose father Eddy was one of four cyclists who held the record for consecutive Tour wins until Armstrong.

Hincapie, who'd been assisted by Hamilton and Julich, was the U.S. leader up until that point, but the muscles in his legs had already turned into Athenian marble. Hamilton took over the U.S. lead, but he didn't have enough kick left when Bettini and Paulinho took off up Lycabetous Hill for the final climb.

"He was almost laughing at us," Julich said. "The conditions were too harsh today."

The Olympic limit of five men per team, compared to nine in the Tour, restricts the ability for riders to protect a leader. And without Armstrong, the U.S. entered the Olympics without a clear one.

"Sometimes guys come out of the tour at a really good point, sometimes they're still tired. We just left things open," Hamilton said. "Everyone sort of had their chance today. But if one guy was super today, we would have worked for him."

Had Hincapie been 100 percent, Hamilton said the United States might have fared better.

"I think we get a good grade for our efforts," Hamilton said. "Not an A, but a B-plus, A-minus."

Julich, at least, will have another shot at a medal.

"For me, I still have a big objective with the time trials on Wednesday," Julich said. "Absolutely, today was training for that. I wanted to get one hard ride and go deep, but not totally kill myself.

"Forty-eight kilometers is a lot shorter than 224, but I think I have a good a chance as anyone at getting a medal."

Meanwhile, his teammates plan on visiting the Parthenon.

"It was beautiful," Hincapie said. "I hope to go tomorrow ... if I can walk."