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Road race one of opening-day highlights

Posted: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM; Updated: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM
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ATHENS, Aug 6 (Reuters) -- Lance Armstrong will not take part in it, but the Olympic cycling men's road race will still be one of the biggest attractions of the opening day of the Athens Games a week on Saturday.

Armstrong, who won a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France last month, has decided to skip the Games to spend more time with his family, opening the door for his younger rivals to fight for Olympic gold.

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Jan Ullrich of Germany will defend his title following his disappointing fourth place in the Tour while world champion Igor Astarloa of Spain, Paolo Bettini and Davide Rebellin of Italy and Peter Van Petegem of Belgium are also potential winners.

The men's road race will take place on August 14, the day after the opening ceremony, and the women's the following day, on a circuit which takes in the centre of Athens and the Acropolis.

But while the road races are the highlights of the Olympic cycling, they offer just two of the 18 gold medals up for grabs in a packed programme which also includes track racing and mountain biking.

Time trials will be held at the Vouliagmeni Olympic Centre 45 km down the coast from Athens with both the men's and women's races on August 18.

The 12 track events will be contested over five days from August 20 at the central Athens Olympic Sports Complex -- in the late afternoon and early evening to avoid the heat of the Greek summer.

The mountain bike events will be held on August 27 and 28 in the shadow of Mount Parnitha, north of Athens.

FAST FINISH

While Ullrich will perhaps start favourite to win the 224.4-km men's road race, Susanne Ljungskog of Sweden is the favourite for the women's 118.8-km race.

She has won the world title for the last two years and has the right mix of endurance, race tactics and a fast sprint finish needed to win gold.

Her biggest rivals are expected to be Nicole Cooke of Britain, Mirjam Melchers of the Netherlands and Oenone Wood of Australia.

Track racing consists of eight disciplines for men and four for women, ranging from the pure speed events such as the sprint and the kilometre to the longer points race and Madison events.

Nations qualified for the Olympic Games via this year's track World Cup and world championships.

Traditionally strong nations such as France, Germany and Australia are expected to contest the medals with Britain, Russia and the United States likely challengers.

Sprinters Sean Eadie of Australia, Arnaud Tournant of France and Chris Hoy of Britain will all flex their powerful muscles in the men's sprint events, while Bradley McGee of Australia and Britain's Bradley Wiggins will probably fight for gold in the men's individual pursuit.

Natalia Tsylinskaya of Belarus, Olga Slusareva of Russia and Leontien Van Moorsel of the Netherlands are the favourites for the women's sprint and endurance events after dominating the world championships in recent years.

Mountain bike racing was introduced at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 after the remarkable growth in off-road riding. The men's and woman's cross-country races will mark the end of the cycling events at the Olympics with Mount Parnitha offering a spectacular backdrop to the six-km circuit that includes forest roads, tracks and technical rocky sections.

Double gold medallist Paola Pezzo of Italy has decided to go for a third medal after making a successful comeback following the birth of her son.

In the men's event, Sydney gold medal winner Miguel Martinez of France is also expected to defend his title but will have to beat Filip Meirhaeghe of Belgium and Switzerland's Christophe Sauser.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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