Dutch cycling coach Egon van Kessel is under no illusions about the course for the men's Olympic road race that will crown one of the Games' first champions on Saturday.
"I know the course from last year's Good Luck Beijing event. I rode the course in a following car at the under-23 race, and I must say this is the toughest course I've ever seen at a tournament event," said Kessel.
Italy's Paolo Bettini will put his Olympic title on the line in the 245km race against the likes of Alejandro Valverde of Spain, Germany's Stefan Schumacher, Luxembourger Kim Kirchen and a strong Australian contingent.
Kessel is hoping his team's big hope, youngster Robert Gesink, has the tools to keep pace on what will likely become a race of attrition - made all the harder by a hilly 23.8km loop to be raced seven times and potentially oppressive atmospheric conditions.
But he admits the main climb on the race has been made to look too easy.
"The climb is especially hard," added the Dutchman. "In the road book it says it has an average climbing gradient of four percent, but that is because there's a little knick that goes downhill. The climb itself is much tougher than four percent."
The Dutch are among the privileged nations with five team members and hope to use that to keep Gesink in the mix - although their strategy could change mid-race to favour Karsten Kroon.
"Robert is our team leader and will be protected but it depends on how the race unfolds," said Kessel. "If the race is slow and there's a big group going into the final laps Karsten will have a chance. If it's a hard race with only a few riders up front at the end we hope to have Gesink still there."
He admits that Bettini and Valverde's respective teams will start as the big favourites, but said that Luxembourg trio Frank and Andy Schleck and Kirchen could cause an upset.
"The Italians and the Spaniards have the strongest teams. Luxembourg are the outsiders. It's incredible. They only have just over 400,000 inhabitants and they come here with three world class riders."
Luxembourgers bid to end 56-year summer medal famine
They are normally fierce competitors in the tough world of elite road cycling. But on Saturday Luxembourgers Andy and Frank Schleck will be expected to put their differences with compatriot Kim Kirchen aside in a bid to claim a rare Olympic medal for the landlocked Duchy.
The last time Luxembourg stood on the podium of a summer Olympics was in 1952 when Josy Barthel claimed the men's 1500 metres athletics title in Helsinki.
The trio's respective performances at this year's Tour de France have raised expectations significantly, but team coach Bernhard Baldinger has called for a cool head.
"We have a strong team, but it is a small team as we don't have five riders like many of the other teams," he said. "I have no expectations for them, just that the riders do well."
Although huge talents individually, one of the pressing questions is whether the trio can forget recent skirmishes and join forces to give Luxembourg a real medal chance.
At the three-week Tour, Kirchen, who rides for team Columbia, wore the yellow for four days and came close to winning stages on several occasions - an achievement said to have peeved the Schleck siblings, which they later denied. Yet their rivalry in the European scene is alive and kicking.
In Luxembourg there are two diametrically opposed camps, which are also nourished by the fact father Johnny Schleck is a former pro and the brothers of Kirchen's grandfather Ben were all cyclists, notably Jeng Kirchen, who raced the Tour de France several times.
At the 2008 Tour older brother Frank Schleck, 28, went on to get a taste of the yellow jersey hmself, and had the ultimate pleasure of handing it to CSC teammate Carlos Sastre prior to his overall triumph. Andy, 23, was an equally vital cog in the CSC team's domination of the race.
Upon the trio's return home, a stunning 35,000 people turned out to see them at a post-Tour criterium. Not bad for a country with less than half a million people.
Saturday's first big endurance test of the Games is more likely to favour reigning champion Paolo Bettini of Italy and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde. But 30 year-old Kirchen, who arrived in Beijing over a week ago to try and acclimatise and is arguably more suited to the hilly course than the Schleck siblings, can not be ruled out.
"I'm glad I came as early as I did because yesterday (Wednesday) was the first time that I've been able to really breathe properly," said Kirchen, who earlier this year put his climbing skills on display in winning the Fleche Wallonne Belgian semi-classic race.
Even Valverde, who upstaged Kirchen on the hilly finish to the first stage of the Tour de France, believes he can be a danger.
"I believe Kim is the rider (of the three) whose characteristics are best suited for this course. We saw he was very strong in the Tour de France," Valverde said in Beijing on Tuesday. "He is the fastest of the three (Luxembourgers) and he is the most dangerous."
Whether they ride for the flag remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, the Luxembourg trio will be closely watched.
© AFP 2008
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