By Jean-François Quénet in Juyongguan, China
High altitude training at 2,700m in Colorado prior to the Olympic Games may have Jeannie Longo good form, but she will return to France without any medals. Rain prevented the Longo from performing better in the road race, and she narrowly missed the bronze medal in the time trial by finishing just 1.63 seconds behind third placed Karin Thürig from Switzerland.
A mechanical incident hindered Longo's effort. She put her chain onto the small ring on the last curve climbing up toward Great Wall of China. "I heard 'bling' and it took me a bit of time to push on the pedals again," she said while her coach and husband Patrice Ciprelli confirmed that she lost two seconds in this incident.
Longo, however, had another explanation for missing out on a medal. "For the past two days I've been fighting sciatic pain that I haven't had for months," she said while in the mixed zone of the Olympic cycling venue in Juyongguan, China.
The pain resurfaced after her effort during the road race, which was characterized by torrential rain on Sunday. "Since [then], I've received massages but it didn't help much," she said. "I started my time trial like someone going to the war, ready to suffer. Apparently I had a good start, but I didn't think I could do well. When I heard that I was third at the half way point, I thought, well, I'll finished 13th – there were still ten riders left behind me."
She had mixed feelings when it came to analyzing her race. "I'm happy with my ride. I really felt powerful and in other years I hadn't trained like this," she said. "But I am extremely disappointed to miss out on the medal. I had two chances of getting a medal."
Longo was the Olympic road race champion in 1996 in Atlanta, and she finished third in the time trial in Sydney in 2000. She was almost in the best form of her life in Beijing for her seventh Olympic Games.
Longo might have been competing in her eighth Olympic Games, but women's cycling was not added to the Olympics until 1984 in Los Angeles. She won her first French Championship in 1979, just one year before the Olympics in Moscow.
Asked by a Spanish reporter why she continues racing, Longo answered, "And you, why do you continue writing articles?" Another question regarded her eventual retirement from Olympic competition. She replied that Beijing was "probably" her last Olympics, but she acknowledged that she wasn't sure, and her husband gave his answer with a "Who knows?"
Longo will turn 50 in October. She has no plans to stop racing and no plans to continue. "I don't know yet how the [world championship] course is in Varese," she said, thinking of the next month's race in Italy.
"The advantage of the Olympic Games, in my mind, is that only 60 racers participate in the road race," said Longo. "If it was always like that, I'd race more."
Longo has been enjoying her Olympic experience. When she first arrived in Beijing, she spent one night at the athlete's village and then moved to a hotel room booked by the French federation near the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium before returning to the village.
"In the past, only in Barcelona in 1992 did I stay at the village," she said. "I've loved it here. Even the biggest stars are humble. The other day as I took some tomatoes at the restaurant, somebody told me 'good luck for the time trial.' It was Fabian Cancellara! Rafael Nadal was there as well, it's the only place where we can see these athletes who are usually unapproachable. At the village, we're all kids!"
What remains to be seen is whether Longo will return in another four years.