From the outside, road cycling looks like an individual sport. And it is in the time trial, where it's one rider against the clock. Road racing is a different story.
Thanks to the physics of cycling - which lets a rider save over 25 percent of his energy by drafting, or riding behind, another cyclist - teammates are very important. As narrator David Perry says in Bud Greenspan's documentary of the 1984 Olympics, "16 Days of Glory," cycling is a contradiction.
"One strives to be the first across the finish line," he says. "But to reach that goal, one must become an unselfish member of a team."
"A race," he adds, "is a combination of strength, speed, and tactics."
Case in point: Carlos Sastre took the lead of the 2008 Tour de France on L'Alpe d'Huez not just because he is a very strong climber but because his teammates on CSC set the pace for many of the 197.2 kilometers leading to the 13.3km final climb, and they chased down the riders who attacked off the front of the group earlier in the race. Sastre mostly sat in their slipstreams while they did the bulk of the work. His primary job was to ride the last 13.3km as fast as he could. And he succeeded.
If Sastre holds the lead until Le Tour ends on Sunday, he will claim the overall title, and his team will earn a pot of gold, almost literally.
At the Olympics, where cyclists ride for their countries, not their trade teams (although in truth team loyalties usually win out at both the Olympics and World Championships, with teammates from other countries sometimes slyly helping each other), only one will earn a gold medal. His countrymen who worked to get him to the finish line in first get nothing but a slap on the back and a small bonus from their sponsor, should they have that clause in their contracts.
This has never seemed fair to me. We remember the 1980 U.S. hockey team's Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union and subsequent defeat of Finland to win the gold, but the medal didn't just go to Mike Eruzione or Jim Craig. In 1984, Alexi Grewal won the first gold medal in cycling for the U.S., but Davis Phinney, Thurlow Rogers, and Ron Kiefel didn't get to stand on the podium with him.
It's like giving the gold medal in baseball only to the pitcher. Or in soccer, to the lead scorer.
On August 9, the U.S. men's cycling team of George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Jason McCartney, Christian Vande Velde, and Dave Zabriskie will line up to race a hilly 245.4 kilometers around Beijing and out to the Great Wall - a difficult course that led 2007 Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans to tell VeloNews.com, "It goes up, goes up some more and comes down - then you go up again," after competing in the Good Luck Beijing race last August.
These five Americans race for different teams: Hincapie has races for Team Columbia (sponsored by Columbia Sportswear), Leipheimer for the Astana Cycling Team, McCartney for Team CSC, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie are on Garmin-Chipotle.
The designated team leader will be the one with the best form and the best chances on the course. With the riders having to tackle a 12km-long hill seven times (they will ride a 23.8km loop near the Great Wall seven times) - in heat and humidity - it will be a race of attrition.
My money is on Leipheimer, who finished third in the 2007 Tour de France but had to sit out this year's Tour after the Astana Cycling Team wasn't invited to participate. Hincapie and Vande Velde will still be recovering from the Tour, which ends just two weeks prior to the Olympic road race, Zabriskie is a stronger time trialer, and McCartney isn't yet a leading international cyclist.
Should Leipheimer, or any of these men, win a medal, I'll remember how he got there.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This blog was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.