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Saturday, August 14, 2004
Hamilton top U.S. finisher at 18th

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Italy's Paolo Bettini pulled away in the final 100 meters to win the men's cycling road race Saturday, while one of the deepest groups of American riders in an Olympics failed to reach the medals stand.

Bettini, his arms outstretched and pumping, wept and blew kisses to the crowd after making a desperate surge past Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, who led much of the final lap around the 8.2-mile circuit.

Bettini, a former world champion who built his training for the year solely around this one race, finished the 139.4-mile test in 5 hours, 41 minutes, 44 seconds. Paulinho was one second back; Belgium's Axel Merckx, son of the cycling great Eddy Merckx, was another seven seconds back in third.

The U.S. men's road squad, with four accomplished international riders on the five-man roster, was paced by Tyler Hamilton's 18th-place finish. At various times after the race's midpoint, three Americans -- Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer and Hamilton -- each flirted with the lead, yet none ever got to the front.

George Hincapie, a teammate of Lance Armstrong in each of the Texan's last six Tour de France victories, finished 24th along with Hamilton, 14 seconds behind Bettini.

No U.S. men's rider has ever won a medal in the road race at a fully-attended Olympics. Alexi Grewal won gold at Los Angeles in 1984, when the Eastern Bloc boycotted.

Defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany, bidding to become the first back-to-back winner of the event, finished 19th, in the same pack with Hamilton and Hincapie.

Bettini and Paulinho entered the 17th and final lap side-by-side, with approximately a 15-second edge on their pursuers. They exchanged the lead several times, before Paulinho made a strong move at the start of the final straightaway. Bettini, however, came right back and held on.

It was Italy's first gold in the road race since Fabio Casartelli won at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The Italian died in a fall at the 1995 Tour de France.

World champion Igor Astarloa of Spain and Dutch veteran Michael Boogerd were among four riders forced to abandon the race after crashing on the opening lap.

The stirring finish came after riders endured nearly six hours of temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees over sections of the course that meandered through Athens' downtown streets, up steep hills and past the historic Acropolis.

Riders faced 90-degree temperatures in the relative shade of the starting line when the race began. Temperatures reached 104 degrees on sunny sections of the course.

Some riders slid ice bags down the backs of their jerseys, a desperate effort for a bit of relief.

The majority of the fans -- many waving flags from the 43 represented nations -- sought refuge in shady areas and largely ignored some of the more picturesque spots of the course, including the area around the Parthenon and Acropolis.

Among the riders who couldn't survive the heat were Leipheimer; Germany's Andreas Kloeden, who won bronze in the road race at Sydney four years ago; and Russia's Viatcheslav Ekimov, who will seek to defend his Olympic time trial gold medal on the same course Wednesday.

The women's road race will be held Sunday over the same downtown circuit.