France's Jeannie Longo Rode not, it seemed, to win the Olympic women's road race on Monday, but to keep America's Inga Benedict from winning it. In the process Longo handed a 24-year-old substitute schoolteacher from Holland the chance of her lifetime.
Monique Knol seized it, sprinting at the end through a gap in the field to beat out Jutta Niehaus of West Germany for the gold medal. Until that moment the race appeared to be a personal grudge match between Longo, the emphatic favorite until an injury felled her a month ago, and Benedict, the top medal hope of the U.S., a country in which Longo refuses to compete.
As the pack made its way five times around the 10.2-mile circuit, Longo rode at the back, a position that must have seemed foreign to the reigning world champion and winner of the last two Tours de France Fèminins. She usually rides near the lead, so the other riders were left with hard questions. Was Longo off her form as a result of the hairline fracture of her hip that she had suffered in a fall during a race in August? Or was she playing possum, hoping for a free ride at a slow pace before flashing her stuff and seizing the gold?
Those questions persisted as the race wore on. Several riders took turns in the lead, but the pace was desultory and everyone's mind was on Longo. "This is a paranoid pack, scared of each other and of what Jeannie might do," said Connie Carpenter-Phinney, the 1984 Olympic champion, as she watched the proceedings. "If Jeannie does have something to give at the end, what a great game she's playing."
With about 3½ miles to go, Benedict decided to break away, opening up a 100-yard gap. "I felt that if I could get an edge coming over the next hill, I could hold off the pack," said Benedict afterward. "But, ahh, Longo doesn't like me very much. The minute I went, she came right after me."
Longo reeled in Benedict over the next two miles and in the process pulled the rest of the pack along with her. The chase left both Benedict, who would finish eighth, and Longo, who would wind up 21st, spent for the day. Said Benedict, "She'd probably rather see anybody win but me."
For her part, Longo wasn't talking. But she was furious when the U.S. Cycling Federation disallowed her 3-km velodrome world record, set in November in Colorado Springs, because traces of ephedrine, a stimulant, were found in her system. She accused the Americans of trying to "destabilize" her before the Olympics and vowed not to race again in the U.S. until Dr. Robert Voy, the U.S.O.C.'s chief medical officer, who supervises drug testing for the Cycling Federation, is removed. Yet even if Benedict were from Djibouti, the Americans believe, Longo wouldn't much care for her. "Once Jeannie got a taste of winning, she hated to lose," says Carpenter-Phinney. "Inga's one of the few real contenders."
Knol had already won the Dutch championship and two stages of the Tour de France Fèminin this season, and surely by now she has Longo's attention. Like all the Dutch women cyclists, Knol is a powerful sprinter who liked her chances as soon as she found out how flat this course would be.
In Dutch, a knol is a horse too old to work, but the new Olympic gold medalist, who lives with her boyfriend and sports a wispy blonde rattail, is still very much in her prime—the groovy substitute teacher every schoolchild wishes for. "I saw a little hole—schwoooook!—I went away, and that was it," she said, sounding much as one of her fourth-graders might. 'I did the sprint all alone, all by myself."
So she did. But elsewhere along the road, as so often happens in cycling, she got a little help.