The Olympics are the pinnacle of sporting competition. Just to compete is an honour, but to win a medal takes and gives special status; it acknowledges an athlete as one of the best in his profession worldwide. The problem is that everyone - no matter what nationality, calibre of rider or whether they've vowed to work as a domestique - always has that dream to win a medal in the back of their mind. Below is an assessment of the favourites and their chances. Although every rider wants to win, every rider rider also has a chance, no matter how big or small. The race will be a lottery decided in one day, but the victor will remember it for the rest of his life.
30 year old Bettini comes into the Olympic road race as one of the hot favourites. The Quick Step man is in scorching form, after winng the GP Citta di Camaiore with a well-timed attack and two second place finishes in consecutive World Cup Saturdays in the HEW-Cyclassics Cup in Hamburg and the San Sebastien Classic. However, evidently his luck looks to be wearing a bit thin in the big races. Nonetheless, 'Il Grillo' spearheads an Italian team united in one aim; to get him gold. With hardened riders like Cristian Moreni and Daniele Nardello, who can last the distance as well as the climbs, Bettini will have an expert team at his disposal. Moreni, Pozzato or Paolini (his personal domestique at Quick Step) could offer a good lead-out too, if it comes down to that.
Still, Bettini is an aggressive rider and it may be that he will make the winning move. There is no doubting his excellent form and condition; now he 'just' has to convert it into victory.
After his disastrous crash in the Tour of Switzerland, which resulted in T-Mobile having to pin their hopes squarely on Jan Ullrich's shoulders, Vino could yet make the injury a blessing rather than a curse. After recovering from his injury, the Kazakh trained hungrily whilst Armstrong smote his rivals in the mountains of the Tour. He showed his excellent form by taking out two stages of the Regio Tour and the overall - yet one of the stages saw him rocket out of the bunch on the flat, with the sprinters snapping at his heels, for victory. The Regio Tour also suggests he may have a helper who can keep up, as talented Andrei Kasheckhin showed his prowess with third overall.
Vinokourov is most feared for his deadly accelerations. As well as having an aggressive, unpredictable instinct, his speed in the attack is phenomenal, making it so difficult for rivals to take his wheel. Not only that, but he is no slouch in the sprint either. Blonde-haired Vinokourov will dearly be looking to avenge missing the Tour by taking victory here, going one step further from the silver he got in Sydney.
Alejandro Valverde and Team Spain
Valverde is one of the most precious talents in cycling, and a big-money move to an ambitious Pro Tour team is imminent in 2005, after sticking loyally by Kelme. Undeterred by the team's Division II status, he has made a habit of seemingly trying to win every Spanish race going - so far he's won a superb 14 times. His form is also great, having won three of the four Tour of Burgos stages, and - needless to say - the overall. Not only is he an astute time-trialist and a great climber, but his finishing-straight speed makes him as dangerous as Bettini - and he's only 24.
However, the Spanish selectors have also picked Oscar Freire and Igor Astarloa, who both have similar talents to Valverde, in an attempt to re-produce a result similar to the Hamilton Worlds. If there are no leadership squabbles, that tactic should work to their advantage: there should be a Spaniard on the podium.
This year has been a welcome renaissance for O'Grady. After performing well early on in the year, he went to the Tour and took a stage victory in the pouring rain as part of the yellow-jersey producing break. The next day, after a crash wiped out some of his sprint rivals under the flamme rouge, he put on the green jersey and vyed for it all the way to Paris. He showed he's not afraid to attack and can last some climbs, although his form is evidently peaking after he outsprinted Paolo Bettini for HEW-Cyclassics victory recently. He should be a real challenger in a sprint. Teammates McEwen and Cooke are just as fast as 'Stuey', but it looks doubtful that they can survive the energy-sapping climbs the Athens course has to offer.
Jan Ullrich and Team Germany
This year's German team has several options available, starting not least with Sydney 2000 road race winner Jan Ullrich. After a Tour ruined by injuries in the Pyrenees that hampered Der Jan's challenge, Ullrich will be looking for some solace in Athens - although the time trial is his better chance. He had bad luck in an Sebastien too, breaking his saddle on a descent whilst chasing the final selection. Nevertheless, the former East German will be fiercely eager to defend his title, and if he is allowed space for an attack, it'll be over before anyone can say "Gee, didn't he used to be fat?"
T-Mobile teammates Andreas Kloden and Erik Zabel may also be medal conteders; Kloden would definitely be happy with a medal here, if not against the clock. Erik 'Ete' Zabel is renowned as a sprinter who can climb well, and if he stays to the front group, he should have the fastest legs there. Jens Voigt also showed his climbing prowess in the Tour, and he can sprint too, though one wonders if Ullrich and the German fans are still icy towards him after he dropped out of a breakaway in order to chase down Ullrich in the Tour. For sure though, this German team has a plethora of talent and one of them should be in with a chance of gold tomorrow afternoon.
After a great Tour for Hincapie, as he forced the pace on the lower slopes on La Mongie and worked selflessly and powerfully throughout, the stocky US Postal man can now concentrate on himself. Whilst his form is unknown, undoubtedly he must be in good condition after the Tour. However, as a dogged, 110-percent-giving hardman, he is America's road race hope. A medal is a definite possibility, if he can just get in a small enough group with less fast men (easier said than done). Whilst he is a good sprinter, Hincapie may have to breakaway himself to be in with a chance of gold as he has less chance against the likes of Bettini, Valverde or Zabel in a gallop to the line.
Peter van Petegem
Belgium's best hope comes in the form of olive-skinned Peter van Petegem. The Lotto-Domo rider showed in Hamilton he can handle uphills massed one after the other. van Petegem is a wily, old-fox-of-a-sprinter who could use his track skills as well as tactical brain in a sprint. Still, the course may get the better of him, and teammate Axel Merckx may do better.
Sylvain Chavanel and Laurent Brochard, the young and old stars of French cycling, could both do well as both have a good finish on them and are not afraid to attack. Markus Zberg and Martin Elmiger are flying the flag for Switzerland: both are in good form and both are good over the climbs. Meanwhile, look out for an attack from Michael Ramussen - after his valiant escapades in the Tour, it looks likely hr'll try in Athens too. The Portuguese leader is Candido Barbosa, who has a loyal team willing to set him up for a good placing. Thor Hushovd (NOR) is being hyped as a possible winner, as apparently his form is good enough to get him over the climbs with the leaders. Meanwhile, apparently, Jaan Kirsipuu - well known for his lack of climbing skills - is preparing especially for the road race. Makes you wonder (or worry) whether the course is really selective enough...