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Posted: 2:31 PM- JUYONGGUAN PASS, China - It was billed as arguably the most grueling cycling course in Olympic history, a 152.2-mile marathon in sweltering heat and humidity that concluded with lap after torturous lap on the picturesque but savage hills surrounding the Great Wall.
Yet Levi Leipheimer coped just fine.
"I thought it was perfect, honestly," he said.
In the first event of the Beijing Olympics pitting endurance athletes against the notorious air pollution here, the 34-year-old who started his illustrious career while a student at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City climbed the final hill to finish 11th as the top American just 20 seconds behind the winner, then defied the conventional wisdom by saying the gray smog that shrouded the course did not cause him any problems.
"I know it looks bad," he said. "But I don't know if it's as bad as it looks."
Many of the other cyclists agreed, saying the weather conditions and agonizing route were the worst of their problems. Fifty-three of the 143 riders failed to finish, including Salt Lake City's David Zabriskie, who abandoned the race not quite halfway through.
"I tried to stay in as long as possible," he said.
Spain's Samuel Sanchez won the race in 6 hours, 23 minutes and 49 seconds after a dramatic finish that featured a six-man sprint to the line. Italy's Davide Rebellin finished second, followed by Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, who made a staggering surge over the final miles to reach the podium.
The riders knew it was going to be an agonizing day, on a course that began by snaking past historic monuments such as the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing and proceeding nearly 50 miles alongside a highway to the foot of the Great Wall.
There, riders were put through seven laps of a hellish 14.7-mile circuit up and down the Badaling Pass, with hills as steep as those in Big Cottonwood Canyon and shrouded by the ever-present haze.
"There's not an easy part of the course," Zabriskie said. "Even the downhill is difficult. I couldn't recover on the climb ... it was too difficult."
A stronger climber, Leipheimer fared much better, riding on fresh legs after his Astana pro team was kept out of the Tour de France last month because of past doping associations. Zabriskie missed the Tour, too, because of the fractured vertebrae he suffered in a crash at the Giro d'Italia in May.
The Olympus High graduate returned to training barely two months before the Olympics, but said he was fit enough for the race. He also said he did not retire out of consideration for his chances in the time-trial on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Leipheimer was thrilled at his performance, particularly after failing to finish the road race at the 2004 Athens Games.
"I'm very satisfied," he said. "I was aggressive, I gave it everything I had, and there's not really a lot of places that I can look back on and say, 'I should have done this' or 'I should have done that.' I did my best."
While the smog was mostly given a pass, the difficult conditions clearly bothered some of the riders.
"The conditions and the course are just too hard," the Netherlands' Karsten Kroon said after abandoning the race. "I worked hard, but the heat and humidity were too much for me. You feel your head explode."