BEIJING (Reuters) - Nicole Cooke won Britain’s first gold of the Games after surviving an uphill sprint finish in the chilly, pouring rain in the women’s Olympic 126-km road race on Sunday.
After a slippery ride on the hilly roads around the Great Wall, Cooke held on to her slim lead during the last 100 meters to narrowly beat Sweden’s Emma Johansson who took the silver and Tatiana Guderzo of Italy who came in third.
“I did it, I did it,” screamed Cooke as she rushed to hug fellow British cyclists after the finish.
The weather couldn’t have been more different from one day ago when one-third of the men dropped out of the road race amid suffocating heat and humidity.
While the race started out hot and humid, by the time the women reached the Great Wall it was pouring and had cooled down to about 20 degrees Celsius (68.00F) with a breeze.
“I was quite surprised about the weather. Instead of being overheated, sometimes it felt like I was drowning ... because there was so much water on the roads,” said Johansson.
“I thought this was going to be a really warm day but going down the climb the first time it was just freezing cold and I couldn’t stop shaking and I thought ‘oh my God this is just so not what I was expecting’.”
The women survived several crashes during a very wet race that began in ancient Beijing and wound its way out to the Great Wall of China where the cyclists completed two laps of a hilly, 24-km circuit between two sections of the wall.
The rain washed away veteran Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo’s hopes of shining in her seventh Olympics.
“I’ve never really liked the rain,” Longo, 49, said after finishing 24th. “My preparation was good but I had practiced in Mexico and Colorado as I was expecting the heat and I was more prepared to the conditions the men had yesterday.”
Cooke, who rode a carbon fiber bicycle especially designed for the Beijing Games, said the British team had a plan that they would work together to ensure an Olympic medal.
Her team mate Sharon Laws said the team expected the race would be decided on the second lap of the circuit.
On the second lap Cooke’s third British team mate Emma Pooley helped catch Russian Natalia Boyarskaya who had pulled into the lead on the steepest part of the first climb and had been leading for about 45 minutes.
“Everything went according to plan,” Laws said. “We’re very pleased.”
The riders said the conditions were very difficult.
“These were the worst conditions we’ve had all year,” said American Amber Neben. “But that’s road racing.”
Additional reporting by Francois Thomazeau; Editing by Jeremy Laurence