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U.S. cyclists fun, but mean business

By the time the metaphors were over, Timmy Duggan had inadvertently compared cyclists to cage-fighting Siberian huskies.

It had all started with a question, asking him to compare the physical, mental and skillful sides of the sport.

Certainly, Duggan said, cycling has all those aspects. And then he drove the conversation straight into Laughterville, which is kind of fitting for the American group.

Both U.S. road cycling teams, men and women, are a collection of entertaining riders competing this weekend. They're also quite talented. The men's road race takes place Saturday, while the women race Sunday, and both teams expect to be in the mix for medals.

But first, back to the huskies.

"You have the endurance of a marathon racer, or a Siberian husky. And you combine that..."

Duggan, the national road race champion, never got to really finish that sentence, because the interview room -- filled with the other riders, official and members of the press -- broke into laughter. The comment took a moment to register, and Taylor Phinney made a face like he couldn't believe what Duggan said.

"...for the 5 minutes of the race that truly matters," Duggan continued, "It's the strength of an ultimate fighting cage fighter."

Phinney couldn't pass up the opportunity to chime in, adding, "Cage-fighting huskies!"

Duggan later explained that, no, he has never owned a husky, but he has read a lot of books about dog racing. As for the cage fighting, he could only say that he's a bike racer for a reason.

Almost lost in the extended metaphor was the fact that Duggan said being at the Olympics is a new beginning of sorts. He was selected, but now he and the team have to set new goals.

Both the men's and women's squads are hoping to compete for a medal, and they're in similar positions. Both feature a sprinter (Tyler Farrar and Shelley Olds) both have workhorses who can get into breaks and chase them down (Duggan and Phinney, and Kristin Armstrong and Amber Neben), and both have riders who can fly up climbs (Chris Horner and Tejay van Garderen, and Evelyn Stevens).

So the teams have a lot of ways to compete, but neither team revealed its tactics. Members of the men's and women's squads said they hadn't had those discussions yet.

"I don't know if we [do it] after the press conference on purpose," Phinney mused. "I said that this morning. 'They're going to want to know what our tactics are. And we're going to have to say we don't have any tactics.'"

Still, members of each team gave their thoughts about how they thought the races would go.

The U.S. men's sprinter, Farrar, said he thinks their race will end in a sprint from a small group. He became familiar with the course -- which features nine repetitions of the Box Hill circuit, and 250 total kilometers -- while riding in a test event last year.

"It's a bit harder than a lot of people are saying," Farra said. "It's not something that you ride one lap and say, 'Oh, that's really hard.' It is going to be an attrition thing. There's not much recovery on the circuit."

Horner is the team's graybeard at 40 years old, and at the center of the team moniker 'Four Pups and a Grandpa' -- "Oh, it's come up," he said.

But aside from his physical skill, Horner has a mind for tactics and slides into talking about them like a natural. He cited two issues that could complicate the race -- that each men's team has a maximum of five riders, and that there are no radios.

"Experience is gonna tell me that you're gonna have to watch for something a little bit different to happen in an Olympic road race than what it's been all year," he said.

Horner said Slovakian Peter Sagan, who won three stages this month at the Tour de France, is the biggest threat to British sprinter Mark Cavendish.

"He's gonna destroy the field up the climb at some point in time," Horner said. "I don't think he's gonna want to come to the finish with Cavendish. Certainly his odds of winning are going to be fantastic from a small group, if not the best."

How the American men try to influence the race remains to be seen. Phinney -- whose parents are former Olympic medalists -- said communication is important, and is confident he can make the select front group if it goes away.

The 22-year-old is competing at his second Olympics and said he learned from the first, where he found out the village can be a big distraction from competition.

"We're staying away from the video arcades and trying to spend the least amount of time in the dining hall as possible," he said.

Armstrong, who won gold in the Olympic time trial at the 2008 Beijing games, explained a subtle dynamic that will likely play out in the women's race because of the size of the teams.

The United States is one of five countries with the maximum of four women -- Germany, Great Britain, Italy and the Netherlands are the others.

All of those teams, plus a few countries with three riders, are strong and likely to shape the race. But riders are at a premium, meaning teams will be less willing to sacrifice one to chase down a breakaway, and big teams are likely to be looked upon to do the work. However, if several large teams are represented in a breakaway, the race could be over.

"If Ina [Yoko Teutenberg] from Germany isn't in the break and she's a sprinter, is Germany going to be happy with [former world champion] Judith Arndt up the road? Of course. She can finish out of that break," Armstrong said. "So what happens is, if those five countries are represented in that break, the rest of the countries are the ones that have to chase, and those are the ones with, like, two or one [riders]. They're like, 'I'm not chasing.'"

Armstrong said that the Olympics are a "different beast," so the race isn't likely to play out as expected. She said that in her two prior Olympic experiences, teams have been motivated to set it up for a sprint, but added that she wouldn't be surprised if it turns out differently.

"For some reason, I feel like there's a lot of looking around when a break does happen," she said.

Armstrong tipped Teutenberg and the Netherlands' Marianne Vos as the favorites, based on how much they've won, but has confidence Olds can win in a sprint.

So does Olds, who broke her wrist at the beginning of the season but came back to win a world cup event and a stage at the Giro Donne. But she also feels the U.S. is equipped well for any kind of race.

"We're not afraid of any situation," Olds said. "I think we have the rider for any situation; for a breakaway, for a sprint, for a small group, for a big group."

Stevens, who quit her Wall Street job to turn professional, will be an interesting rider to watch. She's one of few riders to beat Vos head-to-head, doing so at Fleche Wallonne, and was third overall in the Giro Donne.

She also has an impressive array of celebration faces. Winning, for Stevens, seemingly never gets old, and she lets everybody know it. And if she gets to display it on Sunday, it'll be after many arduous hours.

As Phinney said: "We're here to do business this time."