Rainout for US women

August 11, 2008
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BEIJING - Kristin Armstrong wrapped a soaked towel across her drenched shoulders, shivering. A stream of rainwater fell down the side of Christine Thorburn's face. Amber Neben ran into a dry room, almost dreading going back outside.

The trio of American women's road cyclists spent weeks prepping for Beijing's notoriously bad air, heat and humidity.

In the end, their work was all wet - doomed by a downpour at the Great Wall, one that turned the Olympic road race course into something that offered as much traction in some areas as a skating rink. And so, for the sixth straight Olympics, US women saw their medal hopes in this event dashed.

"We were prepared for heat and humidity," Neben said, "and all of a sudden, it's just cold and wet and treacherous."

Cold, wet and treacherous are conditions the British are certainly used to, and Nicole Cooke delivered her nation's first medal of the games, prevailing in a five-woman sprint to the finish. She completed the 78 1/2-mile trek in 3 hours 32 minutes 24 seconds, just better than Sweden's Emma Johansson and Italy's Tatiana Guderzo.

For Cooke, it was a golden breakthrough: She's a three-time medalist in world championship events on the road, but never before won gold in a field as strong as this.

"Happy, happy," she shouted.

Armstrong finished 25th in 3:33:07. Neben was 33d in 3:33:17 and Thorburn was 52d, finishing in 3:41:08 on a day where the rain rushed off the sides of the road in several sections and puddles and water sprayed off tires.

"It was rough," Armstrong said.

It was the most-decorated women's road race in Olympic history, with 18 starters - more than one-quarter of the field - having at least one medal from either a past world championship or Olympics on their resume, a daunting 67 golds, silvers and bronzes in all.

Most of those medalists, though, were no match for the conditions.

Intermittent rain in the morning soaked and slickened the course, but when the race began in the early afternoon, riders only had to deal with a light drizzle.

It quickly got worse.

Heavy rain began about an hour into the race, and just before the pack hit the finish line for the first time to begin two laps that would decide gold, one rider slipped to the asphalt and took at least four riders down with her. Korea's Sung Eun Gu got the worst of it, slipping off the course and wedging her leg between a drainage ditch and a stone retaining wall. At least three more wrecks followed, including one that made Armstrong hit the asphalt and essentially ended her chances.

"It was one of the hardest downpours of the season," Armstrong said. "It's not very often we're in rain this hard and there were a lot of puddles on the road, so we were going through a lot of dangerous conditions. But road racing, it is what it is." (AP)

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