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2008 Summer Olympic Games Preview - Cycling

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network)- In an effort to take a bite out of the government's expenditures and perhaps keep the air quality from getting any worse this summer as the world focuses in on Beijing, Chinese authorities are aiming to reduce gas consumption by departments directly under the state council. The most obvious manner by which to achieve that goal is to put even more bicycles out on the roads.

First developed in 1817, bicycles have become a way of life for inhabitants of the most populous country in the world, even as private car ownership continues to rise with improved transportation and the second-largest expressway system behind only the United States. Considering how important the self-propelled convayance has become in China, it only makes sense that the Beijing Olympics bring out the best that the world has to offer in cycling competition.

Cycling was one of the nine sports included in the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896, but back then organizers kept things simple with a mere 54- mile road race from Athens to Marathon and back. Eight years later in St. Louis the program made the jump to a total of seven events. When Montreal hosted the 1976 Olympics track cycling events were held inside for the very first time.

Now, cyclists heading to China in 2008 will be competing in a total of 18 events, ranging from track and road races to mountain and BMX styles to throw a bit more excitement into the mix. BMX (new this year), mountain (introduced in 1996) and track events will be contested in the Shijingshan District of Beijing, the latter heading inside to the Loashan Velodrome.

The men's side will have four more events than the women in the track category, including Keirin, Madison, team sprint and team pursuit, while both sexes will contend in a sprint, individual pursuit, and points race. The road portion of events includes mass start event and time trial event for both men and women, with a cross country mountain bike event and an individual BMX exhibition also providing opportunity to earn a medal this summer.

With BMX being a relatively new discipline to international competition, the field will be limited to a total of 48 athletes (32 men and 16 women), with countries having a maximum of three men and two women on their squads. When it comes to the more traditional styles of racing, each National Olympic Committee may bring as many as 28 competitors, 19 in the men's divisions and nine women making up the balance.

With so many roster spots up for grabs, the United States will not have a final list of cyclists until the first week of July, yet there are already several qualified stars who have earned the right to represent the red, white and blue this summer.

Although he first began riding as training for downhill ski racing in 1987, 34-year old Levi Leipheimer has now made road cycling his top endeavor. Leipheimer placed third overall in the 2007 Tour de France and followed up a pair of top-10 finishes in the annual event in 2002 and 2004 with his Olympic debut in Athens when Lance Armstong opted not to compete.

Despite his youth, 18-year old Taylor Phinney brings very strong bloodlines to his track racing. In October of last year Taylor, then 17 years of age, entered his first ever track cycling event and brought home the trophy from the U.S. National Championships to share with his father Davis (an Olympic bronze medalist) and mother Connie (the gold medalist in the first-ever women's Olympic road race nearly a quarter century ago in Los Angeles.

Coming out of retirement at the ripe old age of 24 to compete in her first Olympic games in track cycling on the women's side is Sarah Hammer who, before leaving the sport four years ago, was a two-time world champion in the 3000 meter and a seven-time world cup gold medalist. Hammer is considered by most as the top performer in the velodrome for the United States this summer.

A native of Idaho who competed at the 2004 Olympics, Kristin Armstrong has given up on the idea of being a triathlete and focusing her efforts on road cycling. On her way to the last games in Greece, Armstrong won the National Road Race Championships, eventually finishing as the top U.S. female (8th) in the road race.

In 1996 Susan DeMattei took home the bronze in the mountain biking department for the US, but she's the only one from the states to have placed in the top three in the discipline since it was added to the games. This time around the nation is putting its faith in Mary McConneloug, even though she was just three years into her new career when she dropped in on Athens four years ago, marking her third trip to the Olympics. McConneloug came in ninth in Greece but is only now being recognized as one of the top performers in her category.

The more wild side of cycling falls to the BMX racers who might be seen as a bit more reckless and adventurous at times. Leading the charge for the United States will be Mike Day and Donny Robinson, a couple of California kids who can crank it up with the best of them. Day, who has a style of handlebar named after him due to his unusual height for the sport, nearly ran the table on a BMX track that is a replica of the one being used in Beijing. Day took the first of the five heats and came in second in the fourth event, making him the title holder even before the final round took place.

Robinson, who stands nearly a full foot shorter than Day, has been competing in the sport since the age of six and was named the Overall UCI BMX Supercross Series champion in 2006. Robinson also took home top honors at the USA Cycling BMX National Championship in both 2006 and 2007.

The USA currently stands fourth in all-time medals in cycling with a total of 45, a little more than half that of the French (81 medals, 38 gold).

Speaking of the French, Julien Absalon is considered the best in the world in the mountain biking division. Absalon took home the gold in the 2004 games and is the four-time defending world champion in cross-country mountain biking. As far as hitting the hills is concerned, the men's division seemingly begins and ends with Absalon. On the women's side of mountain biking, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja was the gold-medal winner in Athens four years ago, but illness had her sidelined for much of 2007, which means she'll have to work her way back into the spotlight, despite this being her third time to the Olympic games. Born in California, the one in Italy that is, Paolo Bettini is the reigning title holder in the road race both from the 2004 Olympics and the most recent world championships. Few can challenge his recent dominance in the category and the Cricket, as he is known because of his ability to leap in front of opponents, is certainly one to watch yet again this time around.

Hoping to put a second-place showing in the sprint event in Athens behind him this time around, Theo Bos puts the Netherlands on the map when it comes to track racing. Bos also claimed the silver medal in the kilometer race four years ago, making him the first Dutch rider to earn in medal in either event in almost 70 years.

Pulling double duty for the women is Shanaze Reade of Great Britain who has mastered both BMX and track cycling. Still shy of her 20th birthday, Reade has the stamina and drive to take on any comers in either discipline, as shown by her win in the women's final at the BMX World Championships in Canada in 2007 and her equally impressive showing with teammate Victoria Pendelton at the inaugural 500-meter team sprint world title event in March as the pairing took first place.

07/17 13:07:31 ET


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