Seven gold medals on opening day

Aug. 08, 2008, 6:28 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Let the Olympics, and the medal rush, begin.

The first seven of 302 gold medals to be presented over the next 16 days at the Beijing Games will be contested Saturday, including the high-profile men's cycling road race where Italian and Spanish riders are favored, and two each in shooting and judo.

The host country could win the first gold medal presented - Du Li is favored to win the women's 10-meter air rifle and could be standing on the podium by 11 a.m. Beijing time (0300 GMT).

Other golds will be awarded in women's weightlifting, where another Chinese competitor, Chen Xiexia, is favored, the men's 10-meter air pistol and the women's individual saber in fencing, where Americans are favored to sweep the medals.

There are also qualifying heats in swimming, where Michael Phelps will begin his quest for a record eight Olympic gold medals while qualifying for the 400-meter individual medley. The final is Sunday morning.

Phelps is expected to be pushed by American teammate Ryan Lochte. The pair swam a memorable 400 IM final at the U.S. trials in June, when Phelps won in 4 minutes, 5.25 seconds, Lochte finished second and both went under world-record time.

"I'm just ready for it to be here," Phelps said.

Other preliminary competition begins Saturday in archery, badminton, beach volleyball, boxing, men's artistic gymnastics, rowing, sailing, and women's basketball, where last year's WNBA MVP, Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm, leads Australia against Belarus.

Spain has five cyclists in the road race, and five with hopes of victory - 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre; 2007 champion Alberto Contador; Dauphine Libere champion Alejandro Valverde; three-time world champion Oscar Freire; and Samuel Sanchez, third in last year's Spanish Vuelta and a multiple stage winner.

The riders have said they will work for each other.

"I will wait to see how I feel, because Valverde, Freire or Samuel Sanchez could be better than me on the day and maybe I will have to work for them. If so, I will be glad to do it, because the main objective is getting a medal for Spain," Contador said.

Olympic and world champion Paolo Bettini of Italy is hoping to benefit from the lack of a front-runner in the Spanish team.

"It won't be a race only between Spain and Italy like they say it will. We're going to have to keep tabs on other opponents, too," Bettini said.

The 245-kilometer (151-mile) race is the longest in Olympic history and is expected to take seven hours to complete.

The mass start begins at Yongdingmen Gate, the largest among seven gates in the outer city of Beijing. Construction began during the Ming dynasty in 1553 and took 215 years to complete.

The race finishes at Juyongguan, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside Beijing, with a grueling climbing circuit near the Great Wall. The route also passes through the Temple of Heaven, the Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square, the National Stadium and the Olympic Tower.

"We thought the course could represent the past and the present of Beijing," deputy competition manager Tian Junrong said.