Hamilton top U.S. finisher at 18th

ATHENS, Greece -- Italy's Paolo Bettini pulled away in the
final 100 meters to win the men's cycling road race Saturday, while
one of the deepest groups of American riders in an Olympics failed
to reach the medals stand.

Bettini, his arms outstretched and pumping, wept and blew kisses
to the crowd after making a desperate surge past Portugal's Sergio
Paulinho, who led much of the final lap around the 8.2-mile circuit.

Bettini, a former world champion who built his training for the
year solely around this one race, finished the 139.4-mile test in 5
hours, 41 minutes, 44 seconds. Paulinho was one second back;
Belgium's Axel Merckx, son of the cycling great Eddy Merckx, was
another seven seconds back in third.

The U.S. men's road squad, with four accomplished international
riders on the five-man roster, was paced by Tyler Hamilton's
18th-place finish. At various times after the race's midpoint,
three Americans -- Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer and Hamilton -- each
flirted with the lead, yet none ever got to the front.

George Hincapie, a teammate of Lance Armstrong in each of the
Texan's last six Tour de France victories, finished 24th along with
Hamilton, 14 seconds behind Bettini.

No U.S. men's rider has ever won a medal in the road race at a
fully-attended Olympics. Alexi Grewal won gold at Los Angeles in
1984, when the Eastern Bloc boycotted.

Defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany, bidding to become the
first back-to-back winner of the event, finished 19th, in the same
pack with Hamilton and Hincapie.

Bettini and Paulinho entered the 17th and final lap
side-by-side, with approximately a 15-second edge on their
pursuers. They exchanged the lead several times, before Paulinho
made a strong move at the start of the final straightaway. Bettini,
however, came right back and held on.

It was Italy's first gold in the road race since Fabio
Casartelli won at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The Italian died in a
fall at the 1995 Tour de France.

World champion Igor Astarloa of Spain and Dutch veteran Michael
Boogerd were among four riders forced to abandon the race after
crashing on the opening lap.

The stirring finish came after riders endured nearly six hours
of temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees over sections of the
course that meandered through Athens' downtown streets, up steep
hills and past the historic Acropolis.

Riders faced 90-degree temperatures in the relative shade of the
starting line when the race began. Temperatures reached 104 degrees
on sunny sections of the course.

Some riders slid ice bags down the backs of their jerseys, a
desperate effort for a bit of relief.

The majority of the fans -- many waving flags from the 43
represented nations -- sought refuge in shady areas and largely
ignored some of the more picturesque spots of the course, including
the area around the Parthenon and Acropolis.

Among the riders who couldn't survive the heat were Leipheimer;
Germany's Andreas Kloeden, who won bronze in the road race at
Sydney four years ago; and Russia's Viatcheslav Ekimov, who will
seek to defend his Olympic time trial gold medal on the same course

The women's road race will be held Sunday over the same downtown