Valverde sets sights on Bettini's crown
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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Valverde sets sights on Bettini's crown

by Agence France-Presse at 7:13 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling
Italy's Paolo Bettini is facing a formidable test of his impressive bike racing skills when he puts his Olympic title on the line in the men's cycling road race here on Saturday.

Bettini claimed gold in Athens four years ago after defying tough race conditions, made worse by infernal temperatures, to launch a decisive late breakaway in the company of Portugal's Sergio Paulinho.

But on the first big endurance test of the Games the little Italian who has won the world title the past two years will have to be at his tactical best if he is to slip away from his biggest challenger, Alejandro Valverde of Spain.

Before a pedal has been turned in anger the Beijing road race course - on which the main climb will be raced a punishing seven times - is already putting fear into most of the peloton.

While the 245 kilometres course is set to bring the best out of the likes of Bettini and Valverde, some have admitted they're coming simply to make up the numbers.

"It is hard, maybe too hard," said Kvasina Matija of Croatia.

Colombia's Santiago Botero is a climber, but played down his chances: "Paolo Bettini and Alejandro Valverde will be up there. Because the teams are so small it will be hard to control the race."

Bettini will be relying on his team to impose a race of attrition in a bid to whittle down the number of favourites, but Valverde's five-man team - which includes 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and 2008 winner Carlos Sastre - has plenty of experience.

Valverde's experience in winning the tough Belgian classic of Liege-Bastogne-Liege for the second time earlier this year singled him out as an automatic contender. And he reconfirmed his status as the main challenger by beating Bettini, and a few other Olympic hopefuls, on his way to victory at the San Sebastien classic in Spain barely two weeks ago.

"I've got a lot of hope for the Olympic Games," Valverde said after winning in Spain. "In fact, each one of our team has a chance of getting on to the podium, but luck will have a big part to play."

The 28-year-old Spaniard is not the only one gunning to earn the right to be known as the Olympic Champion, an honor exclusive to Bettini over the past four years.

Germany's Stefan Schumacher recently won both time trial stages at the Tour de France and is a former winner of the hilly Dutch classic the Amstel Gold Race.

Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck are part of a three-man Luxembourg team which also includes the equally talented Kim Kirchen.

Levi Leipheimer leads a solid American outfit that will be looking to keep numbers up at the front, although he could be handicapped by the technical finish which finishes on a small climb.

And the Australians will be counting on the combined experience of Stuart O'Grady, Michael Rogers, Matthew Lloyd and Simon Gerrans to help deliver Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans as close to the finish line as possible.

Evans has brushed off the pain of a recent knee injury to take his place in the time trial as well as the road race.

The 31-year-old believes that only those who rode the Tour de France will make it on to the podium. "It (the Tour de France) is the best training block you can have," said Evans. "For me personally my training was upset with the knee (injury) but I will be surprised if someone who didn't ride the Tour is up there winning the medals."

Of the big favourites Bettini is alone in not having raced the Tour de France. He chose instead a race schedule which he claims has allowed him to arrive at the finish line of the race - situated near the Great Wall - on top form, and with plenty of fuel in the tank.

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