This road course even too much for some of cycling's toughest riders
JUYONGGUAN, China -- Cyclists are used to pain. They embrace pain. They thrive on pain. They aren't truly satisfied unless their lactic-acid levels are in the red zone, their lungs feel as if they've gone through a paper shredder and their legs feel as if they're filled with concrete.
But apparently there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and Saturday was it.
Of the 143 cyclists who started the men's individual road race, which began at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and ended six-plus hours later near the Great Wall after 150 miles and nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, 53 did not finish, including many of the sport's top riders.
Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour de France champion, abandoned the race with 15 miles left in the hills near the Great Wall. Stefan Schumacher, a multiple stage winner in July's Tour, pulled out with 30 miles remaining. Dave Zabriskie, one of just five Americans to ever wear the Tour's yellow jersey, ran out of gas halfway through the race and said conditions were worse than even the hottest days of the Tour.
Zabriskie did, however, stop short of calling the race "torture."
"I've never actually been tortured," he said, then added with an ever-so-slight grin, "Well, maybe a couple times, but we don't have to get into that."
How hard was the course?
After the ride through Beijing's top sites, it headed toward the hills, where it ended with seven 15-mile circuits in the hills at the Great Wall, or so many that Christian Vande Velde lost count and thought he had one fewer loop to ride than he did. When he realized his error, "It was very demoralizing," he said. There was not much recovery on the descents because of a stiff headwind. Riders also had to go through a toll booth eight times.
And it could have been worse, because it wasn't even that hot. The temperature at the finish line at a section of the Great Wall was near only 80, but coupled with 90 percent humidity and the thick Beijing haze, it was brutal.
"It feels like you are at 3,000 meters because of the air," Schumacher said. "You cannot breathe. The air is thick, and there is smog. It's not funny anymore."
"It was what was to be expected," said American cyclist Jason McCartney, who also did not finish. "It was hot and humid. It was a little like Iowa. You can see in Iowa, though."
Good point. The haze was so thick Saturday, you barely could see the Olympic cauldron from a mile away and scarcely could make out the hills at the Great Wall from just a few kilometers. So just how bad were the conditions when the first endurance athletes braved the infamous Beijing haze?
"On the advice of counsel," Zabriskie said, "no comment."
Many of the riders said they didn't think pollution was a problem, or at least not compared to the humidity. Michael Barry of Canada said it was like riding in a sauna, while Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina said it was like having hot cream spread all over your body.
"I don't think it's that hot out there, but it's just so humid," Vande Velde said. "Going up that hill, you just can't breathe, and the sweat doesn't come off you.
"I was looking at a picture in USA Today on the way over here, and they had a picture of horses and these swamp coolers that they put them in because they didn't want the horses to get too hot. And I'm thinking, we're doing 260 kilometers in the city and we're riding around here "
And, he left unspoken, no one was providing the riders with coolers.
George Hincapie said he realized Saturday was going to be rough when sweat began pouring from his body and he needed ice packs to cool himself. And that was half an hour before the race started.
"It was definitely the toughest of my five Olympics," he said. "The climbing and the humidity were really brutal. We all probably lost 10 pounds today."
At least Spain's Samuel Sanchez added a little weight back by winning the gold medal with a time of 6 hours, 23 minutes, 49 seconds, just ahead of Italy's Davide Rebellin and Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara. Levi Leipheimer was the top American, finishing 11th, Vande Velde was 20 seconds back at 17th and Hincapie was 40th.
Not surprisingly, Sanchez had few complaints about the weather, instead waxing about his country's recent sports successes and praising the course that took riders on a travelogue from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the Great Wall. "China is a country full of history, dreams and incredible beauty," he said. "The first time we saw the course, we were scared about what was awaiting us. We had hoped to get something out of today. Now we've got the gold medal."
That was a little more enthusiasm for one of the world's greatest wonders than Zabriskie could muster.
"If I had been in charge back then, I wouldn't have built something like that," he said of the Great Wall. "It seems like a waste of time. I would have put the research into something else. I mean, you can get over it with a grappling hook and a ladder, right?"
"The Great Wall of China: A Waste of Time" probably will not be the next slogan chosen by the Chinese tourism board, but Zabriskie also said that if he were in charge today, there wouldn't have been a race at the Wall. He would have preferred a slightly different location. Such as one of the flat expressways ringing the city. Or perhaps California.
"It would be really nice," he said, "if it was 70 degrees and there was no wind."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.