Australia leads pack with 10 medals

Updated: August 28, 2004, 8:10 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Julien Absalon has quite a year going: Married on Valentine's Day, a second straight French national title, and now, Olympic gold.

Absalon, whose focus had been on Athens since failing to make France's Olympic team four years ago, pulled away in the second half of the mountain bike race and eased to victory in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 2 seconds.

"My preparation was very tough,'' Absalon said. "I've dreamed of this moment a hundred times before. Now it's true. It's for real.''

Jose Antonio Hermida of Spain finished second, exactly a minute behind Absalon. Bart Brentjens of the Netherlands, the world's top-ranked rider and 1996 Olympic champion, took the bronze.

"In the end, the tank just doesn't stay full,'' Brentjens said.

It was the final cycling event of the Athens Games. Australia, with 10 medals, dominated the overall standings; Germany, with six medals, finished second; the United States won three medals, all in the road time trials on Aug. 18.

Neither American rider in Saturday's field on the Mount Parnitha course challenged for medals. Todd Wells of Durango, Colo. finished 19th, matching the best-ever Olympic finish by an American men's mountain biker; Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski placed 21st overall. Both were making Olympic debuts.

"I'm 26 years old. I can see coming back in four years and maybe being a legitimate contender,'' Horgan-Kobelski said.

Miguel Martinez, France's 1996 bronze medalist and defending Olympic champion, dropped out after five laps because of cramps and dehydration. Absalon, though, made sure his countrymen went home happy.

He spent much of the first half of the race in a tight battle at the front, with a half-dozen riders separated by a few seconds. Midway through the fifth lap of the seven-lap spin around the approximate three-mile course, Absalon took off and no one could stay with him.

Even Absalon's wife couldn't handle another 90-degree day in the punishing sunshine; she collapsed as her husband rode past to begin his final lap. She stayed down in the gravel for several minutes, while water was applied to her face and a large French flag waved over her, providing both a breeze and relief from sun.

Soon, the flag waved again -- this time to celebrate Absalon's win.

Absalon was among the favorites, especially after winning the Olympic preview event at Mount Parnitha in May. Belgian world champion Filip Meirhaeghe -- a silver medalist at Sydney -- pulled out of the field last month after testing positive for EPO, which increases endurance by pumping more oxygen to red blood cells.

The Olympic race completed a long road for Wells, who quit his job as a project manager for IBM in 2001 -- abandoning six-figure earning potential and instead opting to make his living riding in races where a typical first prize is about $3,000.

"Having the chance to go back after having a job and do what I love to do all the time, that right there is a victory for me,'' Wells said. "This is just icing on the cake. The Olympics brings our sport to everybody.''


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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