Olympics: Great Wall beckons

Heat, speed and air will prove challenge over 245km

Catching just a glimpse of the Great Wall of China has so far been the highlight of the peloton's build-up to the men's Olympic road race.

If only they could see a little bit farther, the scenic 245km course which is set to unveil one of the first champions of the Games on Saturday would be winning far more plaudits.

"It was amazing," said American Christian Vande Velde after being asked his impressions of the Great Wall of China which hosts the finish line of the cycling road races. "I just wish the visibility was a little better because I'm sure you can see really far. It was really neat at the top of the hill and you realise you're going through the Great Wall and it's like, 'whoah'; you feel like you're going through a fake amusement ride."

Come Saturday, there will be nothing amusing about the rollercoaster ride that will see reigning champion Paolo Bettini put his five-man Italian team through its paces in a bid to whittle down the opposition. Adding to the challenge of the speed, and a climb that will be raced seven times, are the oppressive atmospheric conditions, made worse by the pollution hanging over Beijing.

Paolo Bettini gets in some training miles Thursday

"It's nasty out there, for sure," added Vande Velde, who is hoping to claim a medal in the men's time trial next week.

Experts warned before the Games that endurance events could be postponed in the event of adverse conditions, although so far the road race is on.

"It's a very hard course, very draining and the climb is about half an hour in length," said Stuart O'Grady, one of the Australian team. "We were just sweating incredible amounts. I have been in more humid conditions. But if it's hot here, it will be tough on Saturday."

Compatriot Cadel Evans, who just two weeks ago finished runner-up for the second consecutive year on the Tour de France, was pulling no punches about the race conditions following Thursday's official training session.

"It is no big surprise to me as I was here last year, but it is more humid, the air is thicker and more polluted and the oxygen density is very low," said the 31-year-old climber and time trial specialist.

In the heat of Athens in 2004, only 75 of 144 rider finished the men's road race. American veteran George Hincapie believes the Beijing course will take a bigger toll.

"It's really hard. If they race aggressively not many will finish," said Hincapie. "It (the humidity) feels like we've been rained on, but Athens was hot, Atlanta was hot. We got here Tuesday and I've been riding, trying to adapt to the conditions as best as possible."

Americans George Hincapie (L) and Levi Leipheimer (R) bookend a training group from North America

His compatriot Levi Leipheimer says the only way to survive is to drink and eat as much as possible on the downhill sections.

"The whole downhill is a chance to rest, hydrate and keep cool. You just have to do your best to stay hydrated and fuelled. There's nothing to compare this to, it's a special course. I wish we could see more of it."

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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