Olympics: Jeannie Longo readies for seventh time

French cyclist won road gold in 1996

France's Jeannie Longo will write another considerable chapter in cycling's history books this Sunday when she becomes only the third woman to compete in seven Olympic Games.

Longo, the 1996 Olympic champion who has 13 world titles, is set to follow in the footsteps of Jamaican track star Merlene Ottey and Swedish fencer Kerstin Palm.

Come the 126.4 kilometre women's road race on Sunday, the wily Longo will want to be treated as just another rider with hopes of stepping on to the Olympic podium.

But she is sure to invite a mixture of intrigue and respect from a peloton whose average age will be around half of her 49 years.

Dutchwoman Marianne Vos, one of a handful of favourites bidding to succeed Australian Sara Carrigan as Olympic champion, has fond memories of some of Longo's career highlights. But it's clear she is from a different generation. When Vos was born in 1987, Longo had already won nine world medals.

"You have to say 'respect'," said Vos. "Jeannie Longo has shown she is still up there and able to compete. I expect her to finish in the top ten at least."

Known to be fiercely independent and proud of her ecologically-inspired healthy lifestyle, Longo often shuns the confines of the French team, staying at hotels of her own choice and training alone.

She comes into the Games after a training at 2,700 metres altitude in Colorado and taking her tally of national titles to 55 after winning the French time trial and road race in June.

Vos, in a bid to get a taste for the oppressively warm conditions here in Beijing, took a leaf out Longo's book by going off to race in hot and humid El Salvador in May. The Frenchwoman's path to Olympic cycling glory, however, is littered with as much pain and frustration as joy.

Longo's first Olympics in 1984 saw her bid for gold come agonisingly unstuck when her gear mechanism broke just as she was jostling for position ahead of the final sprint.

"I missed out on a certain medal, gold or silver," she said here in Beijing.

After a race against time to get fit for 1988, following a hip injury sustained at the world championships in Belgium, Longo was dismayed by the course profile in Seoul, which reduced her medal chances drastically.

Four years later, and after a feud with the French federation over her insistence on using her own equipment, Longo grabbed her first Olympic medal in Barcelona. On her way to gold after attacking five kilometres from the finish, she was upstaged by Australia's Kathy Watt and was left with the silver.

In Atlanta, Longo finally triumphed - thanks partly to the rain and some home cooking.

"We were staying outside the athletes' village and so I had the freedom to cook my carrots in peace," she recalls. "On paper, the course wasn't hard but it rained and that made it difficult."

Longo then added the time trial silver to her maiden Olympic title.

But at the Sydney Olympics, Longo's road race bid was foiled by the course: "It was like a criterium course, with 35 bends - totally crazy."

She made amends by winning bronze in the time trial - her most recent Olympic medal having finished 10th in 2004 in Athens where she suffered dehydration after losing three of her water bottles.

A potentially record-setting eighth Games in London 2012 may not yet be on Longo's agenda. That could all depend on the result of Sunday's race, whose uphill finish suits her talents to perfection.

"If I could finish with a medal, I will be super-happy," Longo said.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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