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Bettini Warms to the Task

Italian cyclist wins men's road race as temperature soars to 104 degrees. Hamilton 18th.

August 15, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Paolo Bettini, an Italian who focused his training this season on the Olympics instead of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, usually considered more prestigious for cyclists, thrust his arms in the air and blew kisses to everyone after he'd won the gold medal Sunday in the men's road race.

Bettini, 30, needed an all-out sprint at the finish to pass Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, who settled for the silver. Axel Merckx, son of legendary five-time Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx, got the bronze medal.

The five-man American team led by Tyler Hamilton, still recovering from a back injury he suffered in the Tour de France, was left without a medal. Hamilton had the best finish among U.S. starters, 18th place. Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, Calif., who had gotten a spot on the team when Lance Armstrong decided to withdraw and rest after the Tour, couldn't finish.

The route was beautiful, a tourist's dream trip through the streets of Athens, up and down the hill topped by the Acropolis. The sky was blue.

But the heat was brutal, the turns tight, the air thick. Leipheimer wasn't the only casualty. Andreas Kloden, who finished second in the Tour de France, and Viatcheslav Ekimov, the defending gold medalist in the time trial, also quit.

Some riders were done in by a first-lap crash, others by temperatures that climbed as high as 104 degrees during the 139.4-mile race. The unshaded roadside in the Acropolis area was virtually deserted by fans unable to withstand the heat. Riders tried putting bags of ice down their backs as they rode.

Bettini finished in 5 hours 41 minutes 44 seconds, one second ahead of Paulinho.

Defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany, who had said after his disappointing fourth-place finish at the Tour de France that he hoped to redeem himself here, finished 19th.

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