(ATHENS, Greece, August 30, 2004) -- They toasted and partied into the wee hours of the morning, unable to keep from staring at their medals as they celebrated the finest Olympic day in American cycling history.
Along the glistening Saronic Gulf, the U.S. cycling corps needed only about three hours to win three medals - matching their total at each of the last two Summer Games.
Tyler Hamilton's gold, Dede Barry's silver and Bobby Julich's bronze in the road time trials were indeed cause for celebration.
"People at home have known for six years that Lance Armstrong is incredible," Hamilton said. "I hope (they) now can know that we've got a lot of talent besides Lance, too."
Talent within the road cycling program, yes. The Americans won their medals in the time trial even without Armstrong, who declined an Olympic spot after winning his sixth straight Tour de France.
But the U.S. track and mountain programs lag well behind the rest of the world.
A six-day stay at the Athens velodrome was fruitless and frustrating.
It turned out to be the first time since 1976 that Americans competed in Olympic track cycling and failed to medal.
And mountain biking, a sport invented in the United States about 25 years ago, resulted in another medal shutout.
Australia dominated the two weeks of cycling in Athens, winning 10 medals - six gold, two silver and two bronze, all but the first gold coming in track events. Germany was next with six medals. In all, 20 nations won at least one cycling medal.
"We had some solid performances, and to come away with three medals, to me, is satisfying," said Steve Johnson, USA Cycling's team leader for the Athens Games. "Obviously we hope to do better in the future, and there's some things we'll try to get to that level."
Most of the cycling roster Olympians could be back for Beijing in 2008; of the 18 American riders in Athens, 14 were Olympic first-timers. Julich wouldn't rule out riding in Beijing in 2008. Hamilton said he'll continue as long as he's having fun. Of the 18, the only two who ruled out the possibility of another Olympics were Barry, who says she's retiring to start a family, and track racer Colby Pearce.
"My wife will probably divorce me if I go to Beijing," Pearce said. "That's too much to ask of her. She's got to have a life, too."
On the track, where Olympic and world records were falling in nearly every race session, the Americans got their thrills from setting a handful of personal bests that didn't get them near the medals stand.
Jennie Reed was supposed to threaten to win a sprint medal; she didn't win a race and finished 10th. The men's team sprint trio was 11th in a 12-team field; thanks, Slovakia. Marty Nothstein, a silver medalist in 1996 and gold sprint winner in 2000, went out in the keirin's opening round.
The best track showing came from Erin Mirabella, who was fourth in the points race. She relies on friends and family members to pay the bulk of her training bills, and doesn't know if she can survive another four-year, hand-to-mouth cycle between now and Beijing.
"It does mean more doing it this way," Mirabella said. "There's some girls out there, this is their full-time job. They get paid to do it. I'm doing it the hard way."
Mountain biking was entertaining, if not particularly successful.
First, arbitrators and federal judges played a role in deciding which women's rider would compete for the one Olympic spot allocated to the Americans. Then much of the course on Mount Parnitha was accidentally torched by two workers a week before races began.
Mary McConneloug was ninth in the women's race; she entered ranked No. 2 in the world, but was nearly seven minutes out of medal contention.
The best men's finisher was Todd Wells, who placed 19th.
"The experience is incredible," Wells said. "We were with all the best athletes in the world. It's pretty overwhelming. I'll remember that forever."
BMX racing will be added to the Olympic lineup in Beijing, a move that will require the elimination of two velodrome events.
International officials have not said which two track races will be cut.