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Madonna Harris was in dire need of a new tire for her bicycle. So when the Korean gentleman pulled up in the truck behind her she said, "Excuse me, sir, but do you think you could give me a hand?"Well, all right, that may not be exactly what she said. Quests for Olympic gold medals tend to bring out the urgency in situations. When her rear tire blew out at the halfway point of the women's Olympic cycling road race Monday on a quiet stretch of highway on the northern outskirts of Seoul, Harris was looking for an Olympian-like pit stop.

The driver of the support truck obviously wasn't.

"He was just sitting there, acting like he wondered what I wanted," she said. "I had to scream and shout at him and point at my tire."

The tire change took nearly two minutes, just long enough to dash all hope. When Madonna, who lives in Utah (Park City) and races for her native New Zealand, got back on her bike the pack was three-quarters of a mile up the road, halfway by now to the DMZ. She didn't need a new tire. She needed a Harley Davidson.

She gamely gave chase for another lap and a half - about 13 miles - before she gave it up and pulled off the road, leaving the medals to a Dutchwoman, a West German and a Russian. She had been running third when the tire popped, a mere wheel-length from the lead. She could have been a contender.

The problem with the Olympic Games is also what makes them the ultimate. They're held only every four years. They're the one event in sports where you can't say, "wait till next year."

For the victors, that's fine. But the losses can be tough to take. Daily, you can see it etched on the faces of those not mounting the medal stands - the agony of having to wait four more years if you're even interested in a rematch.

You could see it Sunday when Mary Slaney didn't run the race of her life and finished 10th in the 3,000 meters; and when Edwin Moses lost in the hurdles. You could see it Monday when Said Ouita of Morocco failed on the first leg of what he hoped would be a triple-gold Olympics, coming in third in the 800 meters.

Out-of-work psychologists should be working the Athletes' Village here, handing out cards. "Taking it one day at a time" is a hard concept to work out mentally when there are suddenly 1,430 days stretched out ahead.

Which is why Madonna Harris was shocked at the nonchalance when her tire went flat.

No sooner did she hear the sound that all cyclists dread than she raised her right arm. That's the international bicyclist's symbol for "flat rear tire." Everybody knows that. Except the guy in the support truck.

People were passing her like she was standing still, and he wasn't even opening his door to grab a spare wheel out of the back.

Normally, in a bicycle race of world magnitude, or even semi-world magnitude, you can have a new wheel and be back riding in 15 or 20 seconds.

"I hadn't had a flat all season, I hadn't had a crash, my coaching had been great, my training felt great," she said. "I had peaked for this race. Everything was just as I hoped . . ."

She had even circumvented the difficulties that can crop up at an event the magnitude of an Olympics. She avoided living in the Athletes' Village, where she found it too noisy to rest and concentrate, staying instead with a New Zealand family living in Seoul. And she avoided taking the long daily bus rides to the cycling course for training, hailing cabs instead, with her bike on her back.

"The taxi drivers looked at me like I was strange," she said. "But I'd put the bike in the trunk or the back seat, and there was no problem."

After training all summer on the hills in and around Park City _ up Royal Street, up Iron Canyon, up the Aerie, up the backside of Jeremy Ranch _ she felt confident on the relatively flat 82-kilometer Seoul road course.

The grueling Coors Classic in California and Colorado during August had been her Olympic tune-up. When she finished second overall, to Inga Benedict-Thompson (who was eighth Monday), she felt she was ready for the Olympics.

But all that was before The Flat. The Flat she'll remember forever _ or at least for another four years, whichever comes first.