ATHENS, Aug. 14 -- The two leaders glanced back, and all they could see was a guy whose father was nicknamed "the Cannibal," because of how he use to figuratively eat riders alive on the switchbacks of the Alpe d'Huez.
Paolo Bettini, the Italian favorite, and Sergio Paulinho, a 24-year-old upstart from Portugal, figured they had better put some distance between themselves and Belgium's Axel Merckx, son of Eddy, who won the Tour de France five times and imparted to Lance Armstrong some of the knowledge he needed to win six.
Jan Ullrich, right, who won gold in 2000 Games, is among cyclists passing ancient Acropolis during race won by Italian Paolo Bettini on 95-degree day.
(Laszlo Balogh -- Reuters)
With Armstrong safely home and out of medal contention in Austin, Bettini and Paulinho looked back once more. After 17 laps, up cobblestone hills toward the Parthenon and bustling cafes around hairpin asphalt corners, they played cat-and-mouse to the finish of the men's road race through the streets of this ancient city.
Paulinho sprinted first, with maybe a quarter-mile left, and Bettini quickly counterattacked, churning harder, faster -- until his young pursuer was forced to find solace in silver.
Beneath the splendor of the Acropolis, in the middle of Athens, in the middle of an unrelenting 95-degree day, the slight Italian outdueled a field of 144 racers Saturday afternoon over 139.4 miles. Only 75 finished in this sauna of a competition, as Bettino seized the first cycling Olympic gold medal of the Athens Games in 5 hours 41 minutes 44 seconds.
Paulinho brought Portugal its first Olympic cycling medal, finishing one second behind.
Merckx happily took the bronze, crossing seven seconds behind the leaders and calling it "one of the top moments of my career."
"I never try to compete against my dad," Axel said. "They know who he was, they know what he did. This is my race, my cycling."
George Hincapie, the last of the Americans with medal hopes, gassed out with about 19 miles left. He attacked and was quickly caught, and his failure to contend with the leaders again underscored a dismal day for the U.S. team, which thought it had four riders capable of medalling. Hincapie, riding in his fourth Olympics and still without a medal, cramped up on the last two laps, finishing 24th. Tyler Hamilton finished 18th in a pack roughly 10 seconds behind the leaders.
"I'm still affected by riding three weeks at the front of the Tour de France," said Hincapie, who often sacrifices individual glory while playing rabbit for Armstrong on the U.S. Postal team. Of the searing conditions on the course, which got up to 104 degrees early in the afternoon: "It was pretty brutal. Very, very hot."
Drenched in their own sweat 45 minutes after the race, many of the competitors -- all bone and veiny muscularity -- looked as if they were trying to make weight for a high school wrestling match at 129 pounds. Bettini is listed at 5 feet 7 and 130 pounds, but he might have tipped the scales at 120 when it ended.
The road race is akin to a day-long stage of the three-week Tour de France, and essentially a Mega Millions ticket for cycling's elite. You have a good day, stay with the peloton, or lead group, avoid crashes like the three that happened Saturday, and the lottery is yours.
Which made Bettini's victory all the sweeter. Acknowledged as one of the sport's road race kings, he fended off a monster challenge from Paulinho. Much of the final 8.2-mile lap belonged to the virtually unknown Portuguese cyclist, who almost looked surprised to be chasing down the veteran. Paulinho's biography in the Olympic computer system amounts to barely half a page, while Bettino's takes up three pages, chock full of information about his World Cup championships.
"If he's not the world's best one-day racer, he's one of the best," Hamilton told reporters afterward.
The leaders did not speak each other's languages, but they actually spoke to one another at one juncture, apparently exhorting each other on.
"Well, we understand one another," Bettini said of the exchange. Paulinho almost surprised the Italian that final quarter-mile, gazing back to look for Merckx and other pursuers. In a blink, he bolted, riding high in the blinding sun and about to shock Bettini and the little world of cycling. The shy silver medalist was asked whether he went too fast too early afterward.
"No," he said, through a translator. "I was very tired. It was very difficult to go with Bettini. I am just glad the whole world of sport knows who I am now."
Bettini was asked if he regretted Armstrong's absence -- Armstrong chose to bypass the Olympics and return to Austin to spend time with his children, whom he had not seen in about three months.
"Lance wasn't here," the gold medalist said through an interpreter. "We've known for a long time he wasn't going to be here. I mean, Lance is just happy winning the Tour de France. Of course it means one less rival," he said, before adding almost comically, "But there were some good cyclists here."
The best of them was the slight man with the Italian flag draped in front of him and an olive wreath adorning his head. Hamilton seemed to sum up Bettini's relentless style best.
"I tried to be aggressive early on, but the heat was too much," the top U.S. finisher said. "When Bettini went at the end, it was impossible to go with him."