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Air Has Riders On Tenterhooks

Road racers fear smog will make a tough course even more gruelling

Martin Zhou and Agence France-Presse – Updated on Aug 09, 2008

Organisers have repeatedly issued assurances to Olympians about the air quality over the past year and more. But the cyclists who will set off today in the road race, the first outdoor endurance event of the Games, remained uncertain exactly what they will be up against in terms of conditions.

The daunting six-hour men’s race – which will feature many of the sport’s leading names – and three-hour women’s race are both held on a punishing 248.5km road course, which starts in Tiananmen and ends at the foot of the Great Wall. The final sprint involves a steep climb and subsequent descent sections, which many riders feel is one of the toughest they have seen.

The demanding nature of the route is sure to be aggravated by the capital’s extreme humidity, heat and, particularly, the smog.

“We’ve been given masks to wear if we choose to wear them,” said Julian Dean, a New Zealand road cyclist. “It’s going to be challenging, without a doubt. Nobody is looking forward to it, but everybody has to cope with it.” Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau, repeated his routine dismissal of air quality concerns yesterday.

“During rainy and foggy weather visibility is not good,” said Du, referring to the hazy skyline that shrouded the capital yesterday. “But this doesn’t mean the air quality is not good.”

The air quality index readings from Du’s agency were just within the national safety standard, although still short of the WHO benchmark. It forecast a similar reading today. But the cyclists were not fully convinced.

“I know the pollution, combined with heat and humidity, is going to be a huge problem,” said Lieselot Decroix, a Belgian rider. “But as athletes, we can do very little about it.”

Asked whether she liked the landscape in the suburban section of the course, Decroix replied: “I think the landscape is really nice but I couldn’t see it. I could only see, say, 50 metres.”

American Christian Vande Velde who saw part of the Great Wall yesterday was impressed by the structure but still concerned about air quality. “It was amazing,” said Vande Velde. “I just wish the visibility was a little better.”

“It’s nasty out there, for sure,” said 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.”

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 his final 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 race – and many riders say it could be even fewer this time.

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