The men’s road race was a destructive, oppressive event. The television cameras picked out the tactical battle on the climb from Juyongguan to Badaling, but they couldn’t transmit the thickness of the air or its heavy warmth.
Even on a Tour de France mountain stage, riders don’t look as tired as they did at the end. It wasn’t the same hard heat as a blazing July day on the Tour de France, but an overpowering humidity – being there was like standing in an oven, rather than under a grill.
Of the 90 riders who finished, only winner Samuel Sanchez looked fresh – the adrenalin of victory gave him a second wind. Everybody else looked dazed, with sweat pouring off in rivers. And the spectators who’d made the journey cheered all of them. The crowd, to some extent, empathised with the effort the riders had made. From the car park, each spectator had to climb 192 steps, in the stifling humidity, up a Great Wall tower and along the Wall itself, to the stands.
But before the riders and crowds arrived, it was hard to believe that one of the most important bike races of the season was hours away. Even at mid-morning, while a few volunteers busied themselves with last-minute preparations, the loudest noise was the crickets, buzzing in the forest.
If the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony reminded the world of China’s cultural legacy, the road race was a whistle-stop tour through China’s political history.
The race started at Yongding Men gate, part of the old city walls of Beijing. On its way out of the city, the peloton made a half-circuit of Tiananmen Square. And the finishing circuit was based at the Great Wall, whose history goes back 2,000 years.
The road race circuit passed under sections of the Wall on the finishing straight. It was an incongruous pairing – ancient China, and modern, western sport. But the spectators, almost all Chinese, did their best to understand, even if the giant television screen on the finishing line had to periodically remind them to cheer.
And by the final stages of the race, they cheered everything that moved. Normally, dropped riders can pull out of the race surreptitiously, but there were a few sheepish grins as riders many minutes behind tapped up the finishing straight to the soigneurs’ area, to the roar of the crowd.
But the crowd did understand the finish. The all-out dash to the line was accompanied by a huge cheer, and the spectators understood the victory salute, and possibly also the anger and disappointment with which Andy Schleck threw his bidon to the ground just after the line.
But it was all over too soon. As Samuel Sanchez was driven from the medal presentation in a golf buggy, most of the riders were being ferried home in shuttle buses, while the crowd descended back down the 192 steps to the car park. And Juyongguan was quiet again, except for the incessant buzzing of the crickets.
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