ATHENS, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Paolo Bettini struck gold for Italy in the men's Olympic road race on Saturday while Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, ranked
279th in the world, gave his country a landmark silver medal.
Belgium's Axel Merckx, son of five-times Tour de France winner Eddy, took bronze but defending Olympic champion Jan Ullrich of Germany could finish
only in the chasing pack.
World champion Igor Astarloa of Spain crashed out on the opening lap of the 17-lap 224.4 km course, which wound through central Athens and took the
riders under the shadow of the Acropolis.
German Andreas Kloeden, a bronze medallist in Sydney four years ago and second in this year's Tour, failed to finish as did Russian champion
Viatcheslav Ekimov, who will defend his Olympic time trial title next week.
Bettini's gold comes a year after he won the World Cup overall rankings a second consecutive time and is just reward for the diminutive 30-year-old,
knicknamed "The Cricket".
After spending most of the race in the peloton, protected by his strong Italian team, he broke with 30 km to go and was followed only by Paulinho.#
They opened a 40-second gap by the final lap of the 13.2 km course and while Merckx made a late effort to reel them in, they held him off with ease
and before the Italian won the sprint to the line with room to spare.
"The entire Italian team worked really well together throughout the race," said Bettini, who praised the atmosphere in the Athens Games, saying it was
better than in Sydney four years ago.
His gold is Italy's fifth in the history of the men's Olympic road race following successes in 1956, 1964, 1968 and 1992, when Fabio Casartelli won in
Barcelona just three years before his death in a crash in the Tour de France.
No other country has won more than two men's golds.
Paulinho's silver is Portugal's first medal in the history of Olympic road racing. "I am very happy, I am very excited. This is a dream for me," the
24-year old said.
Ullrich's failure to win means that none of the 16 winners of this race over the past 108 years have managed to defend their title successfully.
The first half of the race, staged on a sweltering Athenian afternoon, was marked by an audacious breakaway from unheralded Swede Magnus Backstedt,
who enjoyed more than an hour in the Olympic limelight and opened a lead of nearly four minutes before being hunted down.
Among those close to the action in the later stages were Americans Tyler Hamilton and Bobby Julich, but the U.S. team sorely missed Lance Armstrong,
the world's best rider, who opted to stay at home with his family rather than come to the Games.