Commentary

Braving the elements to find the real story behind the 'haze'

Updated: August 7, 2008, 8:25 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- People say that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from outer space. This is an urban legend. The Great Wall of China is most definitely not visible from outer space. At the moment, it's barely visible from across the road.

The Great Wall may be 4,500 miles long and, in these parts, 25 feet high, but it is currently shrouded in a haze so thick I really ought to be wearing a deerstalker cap and muttering "Elementary, my dear Watson" while hunting Professor Moriarty. Instead, I'm wearing a pair of black bike shorts, a red bike jersey and a face I can only imagine is a gruesome purple as I gasp and sweat and grunt and pedal my bike uphill toward the Badaling section of the Great Wall. With so much angst about Beijing's pollution and how it might affect competitors in the Olympics -- Ethiopia marathoner Haile Gebreselassie says he won't run the event because of health concerns -- I decided to cycle the men's road race course to see for myself just how bad the smog really is.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did I just say smog? I meant "haze," the official description for today's atmospheric condition, according to International Olympic Committee president and meteorologist Jacques Rogge.

"We must make a distinction between fog and pollution," Rogge said at a Thursday news conference. "The fog you see today is a combination of the humidity and the heat."

Actually, Rogge might be right. It is incredibly humid today with temperatures in the 80s. Whether this haze is, as Rogge says, thanks to that particular combination or whether it might also have something to do with some smog from one of the most polluted cities on Earth, no one can say for sure during a training ride.

"I don't know what it is. Is it fog or pollution or what? I've never seen anything like that," George Hincapie, a five-time U.S. Olympic cyclist, said after completing a training ride. "It's kind of weird. Today it didn't really feel that bad. I thought I was breathing fine. Maybe I'm getting used to it. Maybe it doesn't affect me that bad."

Well, Hincapie is a former top domestique for Lance Armstrong who has ridden nine times for the Tour de France's winning team, so I'm not surprised he's able to handle things. Me? I'm a 46-year-old sportswriter. And though last week I rode 150 miles around Mount Rainier in one day while climbing more than 10,000 feet in elevation (hey, I think I'm entitled to brag a little after a ride like that), this stretch of road really has me gasping. I honestly don't think the pollution is that bad, but coupled with the heat and humidity, I'm having trouble getting that last deep breath of air in my lungs.

Jim Caple
ESPNJim Caple rode about 35 miles of the 152-mile Olympic men's road race course.

"There's definitely something in the air," David Zabriskie said after his ride. "It's like that Lynyrd Skynyrd song. 'Oooh that smell. Can't you smell that smell? Oooh that smell.'"

This may be the first recorded instance of Lynyrd Skynyrd's being quoted at the Great Wall of China. Perhaps there is something in that haze.

"I live in Salt Lake City, and we have bad-air days in the winter when the air gets trapped by the mountains. I don't ride it then. It irritates my throat," Zabriskie said. "I don't think it will have an effect on the race; that will be more the heat and the humidity. But there might be aftereffects. You might have a sore throat for a couple weeks."

"There will be attrition [during the race]," said Christian Vande Velde, an American who finished fifth overall at the Tour de France in July. "The hill isn't that hard, but it's going to be a hard time out there. I haven't been in a humid environment like this in a long time. I'm from Chicago, but I haven't trained there in the summer since I was a kid, and I don't remember it being this bad. It's nasty out there for sure."

Levi Leipheimer snorts when I ask him to compare the air quality here to his home in the Sonoma valley. "There is no comparison," he says pointedly, as if I asked him to compare Dennis and Randy Quaid.

The Olympic race will start Saturday morning at 11 when most people undoubtedly will still be stuck in traffic from Friday's opening ceremony. A virtual travelogue for China's tourism industry, the course begins at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, winds past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, then heads out to JuYongGuan and the Great Wall, some 55 miles from the start line. Then the race gets hard. The cyclists begin a 7½-mile climb to about 2,050 feet, then descend against a headwind back to JuYongGuan.

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And then they will do the climb again.

And then again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

In all, they will ride the loop up to Badaling and back down to JuYongGuan seven times, a distance of almost 100 miles. The total race distance is 152 miles.

"I've done five Olympics, and this is the toughest course by far," Hincapie said. "It's a good course, maybe a bit hard for some people. It will be an exciting race. At the races in Atlanta and Sydney and Athens, it was all together, and a breakaway just slipped away at the end because it was a good pace. But here, if they race hard from the beginning, maybe 30 will finish the race. It's that hard."

I'm not riding nearly that far, though. Because of a miscommunication with a taxi driver and a delightful one-hour tour of Beijing rush-hour traffic -- it was exasperating, but at least the driver didn't pull over to the shoulder to urinate as another driver did when we were stuck in interminable traffic here last year -- I have time to ride only about 35 miles, most of it during two loops of the JuYongGuan-Badaling circuit.

It is hot and it is humid and I am nearly run over twice by team cars, and to make matters worse, I also forget to bring my water bottles. But despite all that, this is still one of the most exhilarating rides I've ever had, especially as I -- gasp! -- pass two cyclists as I zoom down the descent (OK, they aren't even trying because they're locked in a conversation, but still). I mean, I'm riding alongside the Great Wall of China! Sure, the Wall is hidden by haze or blocked by hills and trees much of the time, but it doesn'tmatter. Portions of the Wall were built more than 2,500 years ago and it is one of the world's iconic sites, even if you can't see it from outer space. And I'm here riding my bike along it!

Spinning class was never this rewarding.

"I wish the visibility was a little better because you can tell that you would be able to see a long ways," Vande Velde said. "The aerial shots for TV will be absolutely amazing if we have a clear day. It was really neat at the top of the hill and you realize you're going through the wall. It's like, 'Holy s---!' It's almost like you're in a fake amusement park ride."

And to think, the Olympic organizers initially considered holding the race on one of the ugly highways that ring Beijing.

I meet up with two local cyclists who tell me they're never able to ride this route because of the crowds of tourists who usually throng the roads here. But today they can, because the roadway is closed to cars. They also say it's an easy 50K back to Beijing -- "Just be careful when you get into the city traffic; the cars will kill you," one said -- and I'm all hyped for the ride. But the U.S. team needs the bike it loaned me, so instead I take a less pleasurable ride back on a shuttle bus crowded with journalists who must all be delighted that I forgot to bring a change of shirt.

I can't wait for Saturday's race. I'm telling you, the shots from the Great Wall will be a signature moment of the Olympics.

If, that is, you can see the wall through the haze.

But not to fear. Last weekend was nearly clear and blue, and I'm told that predicted rain could clear out the haze between now and the race. Plus, Rogge says the IOC is carefully monitoring the situation. If pollution levels rise to an unhealthy level, he said, outdoor competitions that last longer than one hour will be postponed.

The road race, by the way, is expected to last 6½ hours, three times as long as the marathon.

Good luck, guys.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com