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Olympics 2008

Olympic Sports

Humidity Is the Problem in a Race of Attrition

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Samuel Sanchez, left, crossing the finish line to take the gold on Saturday.

Published: August 9, 2008

JUYONGGUAN, China — Heavy smog hung over the most surreal of men’s cycling road race finish lines. Helicopters circled overhead, locals held clappers in the stands and the Great Wall loomed in the background. The sun even peeked through the pollution for about four and a half seconds.

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After Samuel Sánchez of Spain crossed the finish line in first place, more than six hours after Saturday’s race started, he said the whole thing felt like a dream. And although the conditions were as oppressive as expected, the racers found the real nightmare not in the pollution, but in the humidity and heat.

“We probably all lost 10 pounds today,” said George Hincapie, who finished 40th. “It was brutal.”

Hincapie competed in his fifth Olympics on Saturday, an American record for a cyclist. That gave him the veteran perspective on a race that drew heavy attention for being one of the first endurance events under the ever-present smog. He dismissed the air quality as not that big of a factor, but labeled this a race of attrition, based on the conditions that he ranked as the worst of his career.

“I can count the number of days on one hand where you’re sweating already before the race even starts,” said Hincapie, in his 15th professional season. “We had ice packs on our backs already, and that never happens.”

For the first time in Olympic history, the cycling road race started and finished in different areas. It began in ancient Beijing, wound through the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and ended at the Great Wall, where cyclists took seven laps around a loop. The race was 152.2 miles.

Of the five Americans who started, only three finished. Levi Leipheimer placed 11th; Christian Vande Velde 17th.

The American Jason McCartney came into the race with the same concern as the journalists who flocked here to gauge the effect pollution would have on endurance riders. McCartney acknowledged thinking during the first few days in Beijing, “We’re in trouble.”

It turned out that they were, but for different reasons. In trouble from the heat, but mostly in trouble from the humidity that soaked shirts and dotted brows with sweat. American riders tried to prepare for it. They had nylons with ice in them before the race and plenty of water. But none of that prepared them for the conditions that lay ahead.

Jonathan Bellis of Britain pulled up early and said he had “trouble breathing all the way up the climb” at the Great Wall. Asked specifically if the pollution contributed to his difficulty, Bellis said, “I don’t know whether that’s got anything to do with it.”

David Zabriskie, who did not finish, said the smog reminded him of the scenery back home in California. He recalled an incident earlier in the week, whe four track cyclists were criticized for wearing masks at the airport, and said he thought the reaction to the incident “seemed like that was what everyone was waiting for.” Zabriskie added that he wore a mask during training, and that he saw locals wearing them.

“In America, we call it haze,” he said. “You can’t put all the gloominess on China. It’s a worldwide issue.”

Almost lost in the air quality and the humidity was the beauty of the course itself. The collage of colors at the finish, the lush green mountains in the background, the Great Wall looming above, covered in the smog.

“Everything is so pristine,” Vande Velde said. “It almost feels like you’re on an amusement park ride. Like it’s not real. It’s probably the most epic place I’ve ever raced my bike.”

And certainly the most humid.