JUYONGGUAN, China They faced more than six hours of nonstop leg-pumping action and strained lung-searing breathing on a 240-kilometer road race course and then finished with seven grueling laps in the Great Wall's shadow.
And in the end, U.S. cyclists Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie and their American teammates ended up deep-sixed on a stifling-hot and strangling-humid Saturday.
For the two U.S. cyclists in the Beijing Olympics with Salt Lake City ties, Leipheimer was unable to keep up with the last-lap surge of the six front-runners, while Zabriskie pulled out of the race six laps from the finish.
"Deep-sixed," however, may be harsh for the Americans' actual results, as Leipheimer who prepped at Salt Lake City's Rowland Hall-St. Mark's came from his 51st-place standing with two 24-kilometer laps to go for a U.S.-best 11th-place finish. His time of six hours and 24.9 seconds was 20 seconds behind gold medalist Samuel Sanchez of Spain.
"I'm very satisfied," said Leipheimer. "I was aggressive. I gave it everything I had. There's not a lot of places that I can look back and say that I should have done this or I should have done that. I did my best."
So did Salt Lake resident Zabriskie, who has been battling nagging injuries this year and whose specialty is the time trials, coming up next for both cyclists on Wednesday.
Leipheimer and other U.S. teammates saluted Zabriskie for his early race efforts in helping the Americans try to keep pace.
"Today, I was trying to stay on to help the other guys," said Zabriskie.
But he was struggling after the first 79-kilometer stretch that took the 143 cyclists from central Beijing past sites such as the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and National Stadium en route to the Ming tombs region and two popular segments of the Great Wall at Juyongguan and Badaling.
In fact, once having arrived at Juyongguan, the racers then continued with seven 24K "laps" between there and Badaling.
It was after the first lap when Zabriskie bowed out for the day.
"I tried to stay in as long as possible. When the group got away, we reacted quickly," he said. "Me and (South African cyclist Robbie) Hunter and another guy worked hard. We were holding them at about one minute off the front."
Zabriskie wouldn't be the only one dropping out, as cyclist after cyclist cried "uncle" to Beijing's heat, humidity and haze.
Leipheimer was almost exactly in the middle of the race at the 79-kilometer mark in 69th place, and then was in the low 30s after the first and third laps and anywhere in the 50s and 60s until just two laps remained, as a number of riders tried their hand at taking the lead in the mountains.
In the final lap, the threesome of Sanchez, Italy's Davide Rebellin and Luxemburg's Andy Schleck emerged to the forefront. Australia's Michael Rogers and Russia's Alexander Kolobnev quickly closed in, while Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara broke away from the peloton including Leipheimer and U.S. teammate Christian Vande Velde.
"Christian and I were with that group, and the gold-medal race was up the road," Leipheimer said. "I was thinking, 'We've got to work to get us back up there.' I was doing a lot of work and then suddenly he (Cancellara) came past me I was really at my limit there.
"Looking back, if I would have watched him a little better, I could have been there for the sprint."
And the sprint, where Sanchez edged Rebellin for the gold and Cancellara surged for the bronze, was all the watching Leipheimer could do."I came around the last corner and I could see the gold-medal race 300 meters up ahead of me," he said. "It was so close and yet so far."