Masterly Longo reigns in the rain

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The Independent Online
Cycling

Jeannie Longo feared the rain which started falling could rob her once again of that elusive Olympic title, but the stormclouds turned out to have a golden lining for her.

Longo, making her fourth attempt at successive Games to win an Olympic gold at the age of 37, ended up thanking the rain for helping her triumph in the opening cycling event, the women's road race.

"I hate the rain," the Frenchwoman said. "When it started, I must confess it had me worried. But in the end, it helped me. It gave me the opportunity to attack and make the race much tougher for the rest. I thought it would be better to be ahead in a small group anyway to avoid the danger of falling in a bunch."

Longo was proved right as 15 of the 58 starters failed to finish, many of them crashing spectacularly on the hilly Buckhead course, which became as slippery as a skating rink. Among them were the Russians Svetlana Bubnenkova and Svetlana Samokhvalova, who could have challenged for medals.

Longo has won 10 world titles in an unrivalled career in women's cycling, including two last year, but she claimed the lack of an Olympic gold to go with them was not an obsession before the race. "I didn't go into the race thinking that I have to win to get the missing one for my collection," she said. "But I really did want to win, of course, and I went through the race 10,000 times in my head yesterday."

Longo's ride was masterly yet everything hung in the balance until the last of eight laps around the 13-km circuit. She broke 40km from the finish but could not drop the two riders who went with her - the Italian Imelda Chiappa and Canada's Clara Hughes. Neither was prepared to help make the pace and, with the main pack never more than about 30 seconds behind, Longo was forced to do all the hard work to keep the leading group ahead, pushing herself dangerously close to exhaustion.

"I knew I had to get away before the end because the Italian is an experienced rider who knows how to handle a race and I didn't want it to be down to a sprint at the end," she said.

Longo dug deep into her reserves one last time on a steep hill during the last lap and neither Chiappa, who took silver, nor the bronze medallist Hughes could stay with her.

With one gold medal now safely in her possession, Longo will now be looking for a second in the time trial next week.

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