US team ready to repeat

An interview with Jim Ochowicz, August 8, 2008

With a gold, a silver and a bronze medal at Athens in 2004, America enjoyed its finest showing ever in the road events in a non-boycotted Olympics. The 2008 men's and women's road teams appear even stronger than in Athens. Bruce Hildenbrand talked with USA's men's road team manager Jim Ochowicz to get his uptake on the team, the competition, the course and the environment.

The Olympics are unique in that most professional races allow teams of up to nine riders which gives a director a lot of options when it comes to strategy and tactics. But at the Games the squads are relatively small with a maximum of five riders in the men's road race.

"You can do a lot more with nine riders than you can do with five over the same distance. In the World Championships a team like Italy typically spends a lot of time controlling the race. It is not so easy at the Olympic Games with only five riders per team. You can't put all five guys on the front so you are limited with your head count in terms of how you use them and strategically it becomes a little bit more challenging," noted US manager Ochowicz.

"You can't have all five guys riding wild card. You are going to need two people dedicated to doing some of the legwork, particularly before we hit the circuits. One of the challenges is going to be if it is really hot you are going to have to have two guys who are constantly looking for water for the other three guys," offered the former president of USA Cycling.

George Hincapie is making his fifth appearance in the Olympic Games dating all the way back to 1992 in Barcelona. "George is a natural selection. He has been there. He has done it all. He has been on four previous Olympic teams. He has a good sense of how that five-man roster works. And for him, when to use his power and when not to," noted Ochowicz.

"George's performances have always been consistent and he is always a threat to win particularly at the end in a small group or even going away maybe alone because the guy can time trial. George is certainly a wild card so we will let him have a lot of flexibility. And if it comes down to the last lap and he is there he is the best sprinter we got," added the founder and director of America's first professional team, 7-Eleven.

Leipheimer's auto selection

In 2004, when Lance Armstrong decided to pass on Athens, Levi Leipheimer was selected to fill his spot and rode his first Olympics. He comes to Beijing a more successful and confident rider. "Levi's selection is automatic with his performance at the [2007] Tour. He certainly demonstrated his time trialing capability on a number of occasions so that is a natural selection," remarked the 1972 Olympian.

Also a danger in the road race, Ochowicz continued, "he is certainly suited for this road course. He's got good conditioning. He did a good Dauphiné Libéré. He's had a good break and he has been doing some great training. From everything I hear he is flying. He's going to have a lot of flexibility and a lot of room in the race to follow those power moves that happen and maybe be in the right break."

The 2008 Tour de France was a coming out party for Christian Vande Velde who emerged from his role as domestique to become a bona fide team leader for major stage races. Ochowicz, who rode the Team Pursuit in the Olympics with Christian's father John, gave us his assessment. "He's got a lot of confidence and a lot of motivation. This is his first Olympics on the road. He has done it on the track. I can't see him not being in the final somewhere. I don't think there will be anybody there who can hurt him big time."

One of the big unknowns is Dave Zabriskie, who won a silver medal in the World Time Trial Championships in 2006, but broke a vertebrae in his back during a crash in the Giro's second stage and had to skip the Tour de France to heal. Ochowicz evaluated Zabriskie's condition. "Everything is good. I have been talking to Dr. Testa and Dr. Heiden about it and they have been helping him out. They feel like he is doing well.

"We were mainly looking at him for the time trial. Dave knows how to prepare for that. His head is totally into it. He will deliver a great performance there. On the road side we needed a couple of people we could count on to do a lot of work. I think Dave is one of those guys who we can count on. It will be hard for him to do 160 miles since he hasn't raced since early May, but I am not expecting him to go the whole way and I don't believe he is either."

Jason McCartney punched his own ticket to Athens winning the 2004 Olympic Trials. In 2008, his maturation into the consummate domestique was not lost on USA Cycling's selection committee. Ochowicz explained, "he's going to be the real workhorse in the team when we need to do something big. Sitting here right now nobody knows what that is or when it is going to happen. But at some point during the race he is going to play a key role such as setting of one those three guys up or getting the team back into position."

Ochowicz hasn't had a chance to see the course before heading to Beijing but he has been getting some scouting reports. "This one looks really hard on paper and those people who have seen it on site say it is really hard and a lot of teams aren't sending sprinters so my guess is that it is going to be harder than past Olympics."

Environmental hazards

The heat and pollution will clearly be factors. What will USA Cycling be doing about it? "We are concerned about it, but until you get there you don't know to what degree; what you are really dealing with. Nike is helping us with some special clothing and some things to help the riders in the heat. I don't know what you can do about the pollution. You can't wear a mask and race a bike. I just don't know what you are going to do about the air quality."

Nike's special clothing provides a technological advantage. "Some of it is a special fabric, some of it is a special weave. Then there is like cold pack clothing that has some ability to retain a colder temperature. We are going to test some of this when we get over there and see how it works and if the riders want to use it or not," explained 'Och'.

Who does Ochowicz see as the major competition? "We haven't seen a start roster yet and things are constantly changing. The Spanish have a really strong team. Valverde just won in San Sebastian. Sastre is coming off of a Tour win. Contador, who we haven't seen race for about a month, but you have to believe he is flying. And the Italians. Bettini is coming up. Rebellin looks good. Again, we don't have the start list yet so we are not absolutely sure who is doing the race, but you have to believe that all those guys are contenders. The Schleck brothers and Klöden as well.

"We are assuming that it is the guys who can climb pretty well that are going to be in the final so it pulls in all the guys you saw up there at the Tour and from the results from San Sebastian you can see that it is basically the same guys from the end of the Tour that are on the front again. I don't think it will be a surprise that we see all those guys there to be contenders. I don't think there will be any surprises. It is too hard a course to have a surprise. It is going to come out of the group from the Tour and also who you saw at San Sebastian," adds Ochowicz.

How does Ochowicz see the race playing out? "It is difficult to predict because you don't hit the circuits until mile 80. You are riding on regular roads in a point-to-point situation which sometimes is not so hard, but when you hit the circuits I think it is going to go crazy."

"People are fresher[than the Tour de France]. They can respond a little better to the hard surges you might expect from Bettini or somebody in the last two laps. If you think about the last two Olympics it just came down to the last two laps and people either had power or they didn't have power. Bettini just rode off the front in the last lap and a half and Axel Merckx got a bronze doing the same thing on the last little climb."

To steal a really bad phrase, the USA's men's road team is clearly "medal capable". Whether it is Hincapie, Leipheimer or Vande Velde who brings home the hardware it will clearly be a team effort and all five riders are dedicated to making it happen. Hopefully it will be the other riders and not the environment which will provide the stiffest competition.

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