Paolo Bettini may have been a marked man in Athens but that did stop him winning the gold medal in tPICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Paolo Bettini, the former Italian national champion and defending World Cup campion, took a comprehensive win in the Athens Olympic road race today, outsprinting Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, with Axel Merckx of Belgium placing third. As expected the 224.4km course was a test of endurance as much as tactics, and it was Bettini who showed the quickest legs through the narrow and steep hairpins of the Licavitos climb in the finale of a very hard race that was ridden in temperatures as high as 37 degrees. The men's race started with a bang, as a crash on the first lap saw Igor Astarloa and Jos Ivan Gutierrez of Spain, Michael Boogerd of Holland, Marlon Perez of Colombia, Vladimir Karpets of Russia and Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine crash almost immediately after the start. Astarloa, the Dutchman and the Colombian abandoned. After those chaotic opening kilometres that saw world champion Astarloa lying on his back against the barriers almost within earshot of the start line, it was Magnus Backstedt, another rider anxious to make up for a disappointing Tour de France, who took the early initiative. The high and mighty Swede, still - as he'd admitted at the start line - suffering with the same back problems that plagued him in July, set off alone on the first lap, with only the sentinel cliffs of the Acropolis for company. In the still heat, the winner of the 2004 Paris-Roubaix built a lead of well over three minutes but, as he'd said before the race, so painful was his back that riding so many kilometres at the head of the race would surely be too much for him. Backstedt's bold and baking break, in what he hinted may be his last big race of this year, ensured him plenty of TV coverage but also saw him hung out to fry. It was effectively ended soon after he had ridden his ninth lap alone, as he was joined by Frenchman Richard Virenque and his Quick Step team-mate, Laszlo Bodrogi, of Hungary. Backstedt hung on for as long as he could, but the fireworks really began midway through the 10th lap, when Jens Voigt and Jan Ullrich of Germany moved to the front of the field, splitting the bunch in two on the descent from Licavitos hill. That initiative sparked a further acceleration that saw Alejandro Valverde slip clear with Spanish team-mate Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, but their move was short-lived and the field came back together again. By the end of lap 11, star-turned-domestique Andreas Kloeden - and Backstedt - had done their job, in the Tour runner-up's case for Ullrich and Erik Zabel, and both sought the cooling shade of the team boxes in the feed zone. After 184km and with three laps to go a big bunch containing most of the favourites was once again intact, after a typically spirited but ill-timed move from Thomas Voeckler was foiled. Moving off the front towards the next climb of Alexandras were Luca Paolini and Alexandre Kolobnev. Now it was Mark Scanlon and Sylvain Chavanel who decided enough was enough and headed for the team boxes. With two and a half laps to race, on the narrow climb of Licavitos, it was Paolo Bettini of Italy and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan who turned the screw, with Ullrich and Oscar Freire among those fighting to stay with them. Before too long, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Freire of Spain were soon throwing in the towel. Next came attacks from George Hincapie (USA) and then one from Kurt-Asle Arvesen of Norway, as Luca Paolini provided the Italian escort. Quickly Frank Hoj (Denmark) - who enjoys these last-ditch efforts - and Axel Merckx of Belgium joined the leading pair, with Yaroslav Popovych chasing hard behind. When that attack failed, the Italians moved again, with another fierce acceleration from Bettini on the narrow hairpins to Licavitos - the hill of the wolf - hurting his rivals and taking him clear with Portugal's Paulinho on the approach to the final lap. As the security airships droned over the Acropolis, the pair continued their effort. As the last lap began, Bettini and Paulinho led by 25 seconds, but with Tyler Hamilton, Ullrich, Erik Dekker and Bobby Julich sitting near the front of the peloton, the chase continued. Yet as the lap went on, Bettini and Paulinho's lead grew to 35 seconds as the bunch struggled to organise themselves. Despite Bettini's next acceleration through the Licavitos hairpins, Paulinho hung on as the bunch behind finally sprang into action with Ullrich leading the way. But the pair's lead at the top of the final climb, of 49 seconds with six kilometres still to race, was too much. When Bettini and the Portugese rider entered the final kilometre only the pursuing Merckx posed a threat, and as Paulinho struggled to build up speed, Bettini was already past him, with enough time to throw his arms in the air in exultation as he crossed the line. Almost immediately, he was swamped by team-mates as Daniele Nardello and Paolini sped over to celebrate. Later, even Ullrich, Julich and many others offered warm congratulations. Behind, Merckx claimed bronze and Zabel led in the bunch, while outgoing champion Ullrich finished anonymously in 19th place.