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NOW HERE was a scream, loosed in celebration, but also in relief. Late Sunday afternoon, Nicole Cooke, a 25-year-old Welsh cyclist, shoved the front wheel of her jet-black Boardman bike across the finish line first in the women's Olympic road race. Then she pumped her right fist and shrieked for five long seconds, sending decibels into the green mountainsides that rise to meet the Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass, 30 miles north of Beijing.
Rain fell in strangely cool, windblown sheets through the canyon as dozens of riders followed Great Britain's Cooke beneath the finish clock, until at last a bizarre weekend of Olympic cycling—some of it unexpectedly wet and chilly, some of it painfully hot and humid—was finished. Against a breathtaking backdrop (the section of the Great Wall that is closest to Beijing proper), the men had raced 152.4 miles in bludgeoning heat on Saturday, before the women raced 78.5 miles a day later, beginning in dense, overcast dampness and finishing on what could have been a miserable fall football Saturday in Seattle. "Somebody had asked me if I was taking a rain jacket to Beijing, and I laughed at them," said U.S. cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who was involved in a crash and finished 25th, as she stood soaked and shivering near the finish line on Sunday. "I think this [weather] was my karma."
Cyclists would be the test case for Beijing's weather Olympics, lab rats subjected to unreal conditions as the extreme example of how performance—or health—might be affected by the area's debilitating combination of heat, humidity and the omnipresent gray haze that is either harmless water vapor or noxious smog, depending on who is describing it. On Saturday, China served up the worst imaginable conditions: temperatures in the mid-80s with 90% humidity, prompting cyclist Juan José Haedo of Argentina to observe, "It feels like you have hot cream all over your body."
The men began in Beijing and rode 48.8 miles north before doing seven punishing circuits in the foothills near the Wall. Sammy Sánchez of the powerful Spanish team (which included this year's Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre) won the race—"a war of attrition," said Australian cyclist Mick Rogers, invoking the phrase of the day—with a late sprint that followed a five-man breakaway in the final nine miles.
The riders were prepared for the tough elements around Beijing. "There are not many places that feel like it did today," said Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal. "But if you're riding the grand tours and major one-day events, you get used to it." Canadian rider Michael Barry, 32, who faded to ninth after being alive for a medal until the final sprint, said, "I've had similar days for sure," though he then had to go back 15 years to a race in Milwaukee to recall comparable circumstances. In all, 53 of the 143 male starters either stopped riding before the finish or were pulled from the course after being lapped on one of the mountain circuits. "I don't think I've ever been in tougher conditions," said Ben Swift of Great Britain, who dropped out of the race on the last of the mountain laps. "We get the heat a lot, Italy in the summer. But the humidity. It was so hard to breathe."
The manner of Sánchez's victory was typical of conservatively ridden one-days: Sprint finishers prevail. In the end he came in a bike-length ahead of Davide Rebellin of Italy. Bronze medalist Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland was the most heroic—and the most braggadocious—of all, chasing down the five-man break alone in the final miles and holding on for third, a performance, he said later, "that means I'm good."
THE WOMEN'S field faced a dramatically different set of problems on Sunday. Like the men, they prepared relentlessly to race in jungle-like weather conditions. "We were expecting 40 degrees [Celsius, 104° Fahrenheit] and sweltering humidity," said 2004 Olympic road gold medalist Sara Carrigan of Australia, who finished a distant 38th on Sunday. "What we got was a complete 180."
They pushed away from the start in Beijing at two in the afternoon, three hours later than the men had begun the day before. Rain had fallen lightly in the morning, but at start time the temperature was tolerable—about 87°—though the air felt sopping wet. A field of 66 riders rolled north, biding their time and guzzling fluids, and not seeming particularly stressed about the conditions. (The women also raced the 48.8 miles north, but did just two circuits in the mountains.) "I was really well hydrated," said U.S. racer Amber Neben, who finished 33rd after dropping her chain on the last lap in the hills.
But 20 miles outside Beijing, the peloton rode into a downpour. The temperature dropped 10°, and deep puddles formed at the sides of the road. At the 48-mile mark, Gu Sungeun of Korea slipped out sideways and took out half a dozen riders—including Armstrong—in an ugly crash that left Gu crumpled with her bike in a foot-deep drainage culvert alongside the highway. (She got up and finished 58th.) Once in the mountains, puddles and slick, fresh road paint made descents treacherous.
"Epic," said Leigh Hobson of Canada, a 38-year-old veteran who finished 17th. "All that we were missing was lightning. There were big puddles on all the descents, and you had to make sure of your line. You go down and your race is over. Plus, I was just training in Italy, where it was [107°], and here I am shivering on the bike." During one descent, Neben took a newspaper from her support vehicle and stuffed it under her racing jersey, an insulating tactic common in the Alps—where dramatic temperature changes from bottom to top are commonplace—but stunning for China, where on Saturday men had raced with their jerseys unzipped to the waist, splattering the roadways with sweat.