The women’s Olympic games begin on Sunday with the women's Road Race which will cover 118.8km, or nine laps of the 13.2km circuit. The women’s Time Trial will take place Wednesday on a 24km course, following the seaside from Vouliagmeni to Agia Marina and back.
In the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney the legendary Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel won the Gold in Road Race, Time Trial and women’s Individual Pursuit! The 34 year old, who plans to retire after the 2004 Olympics, would love to take back to back gold medals again this year but it won’t be an easy task. Challenging her will be double World Road Race Champion (2002, 2003) Susanne Ljungskog (SWE), reigning Canadian National Road Race Champion Lyne Bessette, Great Britain’s National Champion Nicole Cooke, the dual Australian National Champion (RR and TT) Oenone Wood, Olympic gold medallist Zoulfia Zabirova, World Time Trial Champion and triple winner of le Grande Boucle Joane Somarriba just to name a few!
Australia and Germany are bringing very strong teams to the races. To give a little perspective – in the top 15 places of the World Cup ranking there are four Australians and four Germans with the remaining seven places including riders from seven different countries. The women’s World Cup leader is Australian Oenone Wood, with Zabirova Zoulfia (RUS) in second and Mirjam Melchers (NED) in third. Other Olympian contenders in the World Cup top fifteen for Australia are Olivia Gollan, Rochelle Gilmore and Alison Wright. The Germans have Judith Arndt, Trixi Worrack, and Petra Rossner. The World Cup rankings are a good predictor for the road race because they are comprised only of single day events.
Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel says the road race course and time trial course both suit her abilities well and she is extremely keen to take the gold again before retiring. In addition to earning treble gold in the 2000 Olympic Games Leontien has earned over 200 victories since turning pro in 1989, including two World Championships each for Road Race and Time Trial. Should Zjilaard-van Moorsel faulter the Dutch team also has the incredible Mirjam Melchers to depend upon. Melchers placed second at the Worlds in Hamilton, and is currently the top ranked woman in the UCI and in third position for the World Cup series. She has finished in the top three of the overall Women’s World Cup Championship for the past four years, but has yet to claim the crown.
Russian Zoulfia Zabirova is a very clever cyclist and a keen tactitian with two World Cup victories this season. Both the Road Race and Time Trial parcours suit her abilities. Zabirova took the Gold medal in the Time Trial at Atlanta in 1996, was the 2002 World Time Trial Champion and placed third in the World’s Time Trial Championship last year as well.
Germany’s captain, Judith Arndt, is a multiple German National Time Trial and Road Race Champion. She won the Tour of Greater Montreal and took 2nd in the Montreal World Cup and the Tour de l’Aude this year. She is a serious contender to medal in the Time Trial in Greece. Also representing Germany are
Petra Rossner, Trixi Worrack, and Regina Schleicher. Rossner holds the record for the most world cup wins by any woman with seven victories and one overall World Cup Championship. Regina Schleicher is extremely consistent in the single day events, placing 2nd and 3rd in the overall World Cup championship the past two years. Trixi Worrack is fresh from winning the overall Tour de l’Aude. Obviously the German team is very strong, and either Rossner or Arndt could play into medal position in the road race.
Australia’s 23 year old Oenone Wood has only been racing for three years, and already has the palmares that many a seasoned pro only dreams about! Wood is the reigning dual Australian National Champion (road race and time trial), but she has also proven herself a worthy competitor internationally and is currently leading the Women’s Road World Cup series. Also racing for Australia will be 2002 World Champion Olivia Gollan.
2003 Women’s World Cup Champion Nicole Cooke is a serious threat for the gold medal. Last year she proved all but unstoppable in one day events, claiming victory in three World Cup races en route to taking the overall women’s World Cup! Cooke missed most of the 2004 season due to knee surgery, only returning to racing in June. By July, however, Cooke laid to rest any questions about her form by winning the women’s Giro d’Italia. Racing alongside her on Sunday will be Rachel Heal and Sara Symington who has been a member of the British National team since 1999. Sara was the first British woman to place on the podium of a World Cup race (1999 Canberra WC), she placed 10th in the Sydney Olympics road race, and this year she took 2nd overall in the Tour de l’Aude.
Reigning World Time Trial Champion Joanne Somarriba will be in the peloton and looking for a good result, as will American Dede Barry. Barry is the only American to ever win a world cup race, and she has won two. Last year she placed 8th in the World’s Time Trial Championship in Hamilton, and this season she won two stages of the Tour de l’Aude. However, by any reckoning the American teams chances to medal in Greece are very slim.
Canadian Lyne Bessette might just pull off a dark horse victory. She has come into form perfectly on schedule for the Olympics, evidenced by her stellar performance in the Tour de ‘Toona. (Lyne married her longtime beau, Saunier Duval racer Tim Johnson, at the Cascades Classic this year but told me that we can’t refer to her as “LBJ” until after the Olympics!) This year Bessette has won the overall GC at Sea Otter, Pomona Valley, Redlands, ‘Toona, and Nature Valley as well as the Canadian National Road Race Championship. As a member of the Canadian National team she has podiumed at the Tour de Berne, Souvenir Magalie Pache, and the Tour of Greater Montreal. Her forte may be as a GC contender in stage races but Bessette is also a threat for the podium in Greece, helped by teammates Susan Palmer-Komar and Manon Jutras.
No review of the women’s Olympic hopefuls would be complete without paying homage to the indefatiguable Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli. Arguably the greatest female cyclist in history, Longo-Ciprelli has over 300 career victories including four World Time Trial Championships, plus Silver in that discipline at the Atlanta Olympics. She has been crowned World Road Race Champion five times, and earned Olympic Silver and Gold for road race. She has also earned three World Championships in track. Needless to say Longo is to women’s cycling what Merckx was to men’s.
As exciting as it may be to watch the young stars of cycling making names for themselves – the Welsh Wonder Nicole Cooke, the amazing Aussie Oenone Wood, and the machine from Lachine Genevieve Jeanson – it is much more satisfying to see a woman in her mid-forties racing against them, giving them a run for the money! Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli absolutely made the race last year at the World’s in Hamilton. When she sprinted off the front of the pack the crowds went wild! People were on their feet in the stands, screaming their support for her gutsy move. Ultimately she was reeled in, Susanne Ljungskog won the race but it was clear how hard fought the victory was. So my sentimental pick for the win has to be Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli. She does it all, does it superbly, and is coming to Greece to win!
Provisional Team Listings
Great Britain Team
ZIJLAARD-van MOORSEL Leontien
van DER ZEE Anouska
BARRY Deidre Demet