Great day for American riders at cycling time trials
JUYONGGUAN, China -- The Great Wall of China has undergone a few changes since it was built more than 2,000 years ago. For one thing, there is now a Starbucks along the most popular section of the Wall. And there are also toll booths outside several sections (if only the ancient Chinese had thought of that -- they could have stopped the Mongol hordes for not having exact change).
And this week, the Great Wall provided the most dramatic setting in cycling that does not involve 100,000 drunk French fans screaming at Lance Armstrong along the hairpins of L'Alpe-d'Huez.
If cyclists weren't inspired by racing along the Wall the past few days -- well, it was only because they were hurting so badly their lungs felt as if they had just swallowed a Big Gulp container of kerosene. Just ask Fabian Cancellara. He trained at the Wall, rode at the Wall and raced at the Wall. And on Wednesday, he won at the Wall, taking home the gold medal in the men's time trial to add to his bronze in Saturday's road race.
"I guess maybe I saw so much of this Wall, maybe this Wall was giving me the power and the strength today," the Swiss rider said. "Because when you see it's more than 4,500 kilometers long, and see how hard the work and the years that went into building it, maybe it inspired me to do the same and work harder."
Well put. And certainly a sentiment a little more likely to be used on tourism brochures than American cyclist David Zabriskie's comment over the weekend, when he called the Wall "a waste of time" and that had it been up to him, it never would have been built. Then again, Zabriskie didn't have the most enjoyable week up here in the haze. He had to abandon during Saturday's agonizing 150-mile road race and celebrated the finish of Wednesday's 30-mile time trial by vomiting.
Fellow American Kristin Armstrong had a much better finish earlier in the day, when she won the gold medal in the women's time trial, though she did not wax as poetically about the Wall as did Cancellara either. "If you can describe anything on this course, then that's probably where you lost a few seconds," she said. She had a few to spare though, winning the 14.6-mile race by 24 seconds, with a time of 34.51.72.
Armstrong is no relation to Lance, though she said she hoped "to follow in his footsteps and be a role model for the country and up-and-coming riders."
Wednesday was a very good day for the Americans. After Armstrong won the gold, Levi Leipheimer picked up the bronze when he finished third behind Cancellara. "To see her win boosted my morale," he said. "It made me believe in myself a little more."
The medal was a bit of consolation for Leipheimer. He finished third in the Tour de France last year, but was unable to ride this year because Tour officials barred his team, Astana, for past doping issues even though he wasn't on the team last year and hasn't been suspected of doping. Instead, he spent much of July training at nearly 9,000 feet at a friend's house near Park City, Utah, and grinding his teeth as he watched the Tour on TV.
"I couldn't stop myself from watching it. It gave me the motivation for today," Leipheimer said. "It was very difficult to watch because I wanted so badly to be there. I always wanted to do really well at the Olympics. It's every athlete's dream to do well and go to the Olympics. But to sit home in July and watch the Tour go on without me and without my team gave me motivation to train as hard as I could for the Olympics."
Leipheimer said having the bronze hung around his neck here with the Wall stretching for miles both in front and behind him was every bit as satisfying as finishing third at the Tour.
"Standing up there on the podium was just incredible -- I don't really know how to describe it," he said. "In these moments when you work your whole life and sacrifice so much and then you have these fleeting moments of glory, you really have to appreciate it and take that mental photo and really save it."
With the road racing events complete, the Olympics move away from their most stunning backdrop. The track, mountain and BMX courses are located well away from the Wall.
"We're here and we're so close and it would be the chance of a lifetime to walk up the Wall," Leipheimer said. "But it was a tough race and I don't think I want to do it right now. ... It looks awfully steep."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
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