We’ve now had time to digest the road cycling events (men’s and women’s) at this year’s Olympics in Rio. Rather than offer a formal analysis of the events, or a comical reimagining of the events as a miniature tour (we already did that!), we’re going to round up and exorcise a few of the thoughts that are still niggling away at us this week.
Firstly, a few comments about Great Britain’s performances. In both the men’s and women’s road races they played the right tactical games, and can’t be criticised for their plans of campaign. The women’s race was naturally a less controlled race — with smaller teams fighting it out, it was always going to be a race fought by the best of the best from early on. With that in mind, Lizzie Armitstead did a fine job of holding on in the third group on the road, and whilst she couldn’t match the climbing firepower of Van Der Breggen, Longo Borghini, Johansson, and Abbott, her fifth place is highly respectable and she was only 20 seconds off the winner’s time. Likewise, the G.B. men played a great game, utilising the force of Stannard and Cummings early on to begin to whittle down the bunch, sending both Thomas and Yates up the road, and trying to bring Froome across the gap on the final climb just as Yates was going backwards. Ultimately they missed out on a medal because a) Yates couldn’t quite muster the staying power, b) Froome left his bridging attempt till too late, and c), most regrettably, because Thomas crashed hard on the descent. The latter is a real shame, because Thomas definitely stood a good chance of making the Olympic podium if he’d stayed in the front group.
Talking of great tactical games, Italy absolutely nailed it in the road race. They had men in every move, Aru worked hard on the climbs, and they were amongst the most attacking teams in the race. Not only that, though, but their attacks came at the right times, they did plenty to shake up the groups on the road, and they displayed both power and strategy in equal measure. When Nibali finally went, it didn’t matter that he had been one of the top favourites for the race beforehand; few could follow the move, and he clawed out what could have been a winning gap on the climb. Compare this to, say, Spain, who had the overall favourite in Alejandro Valverde, but who could not quite manage to find organization or to follow the right moves. Nibali looked like he had nailed the race, thanks to the great work of his team, until that fateful descent.
Now, it’s very easy to simply state that one decent, over two races, took out four or five riders. But that does little justice to the facts of the matter. The one descent from the Vista Chinesa broke the bones and the spirits of some of the finest descenders in the peloton, and, in the many years we at Marmeladrome have been watching professional cycling, we have not before seen so many race-ending crashes on one single stretch of road. We lost Porte, Henao, Thomas, and Nibali in the men’s race, and the at-the-time virtual leader Annemiek Van Vleuten in the women’s race, all to the same 500m or so of tarmac. Van Vleuten’s crash was amongst the worse we have seen, a reminder of the appalling images of Domenico Pozzovivo crashing terribly in the 2015 Giro. It was one of those moments when the race just seemed to end and to shrink in importance, as we desperately waited for the commentators to supply us with news that there were signs of movement from Van Vleuten. Thankfully, she’s recovering well, though she’s taken a hell of a beating.
Van Vleuten herself is blaming her crash on her own “judgment error”, and plenty of cycling fans are pointing out that all the grand tours feature comparably dangerous descents. Others are suggesting that more robust netting or barriers should have been put in place, whilst some have pointed out that all the riders suffered more due to the unfilled, uncovered, wide and deep concrete drains that ran alongside the road. Our view is that the descent was the wrong choice for that part of the race. It looked to us like a steep adverse camber, with the road sloping away from the corner being taken (Rigoberto Uran has since confirmed this was the case on Twitter). The harshness of that slope mean that riders’ lines were dragged away from the bend and towards the draining ditch; they would have required a much tighter turning circle than they might have expected. Even riders who had scouted out the course might have been surprised at how the road pulled them away from the bends with the addition of race speed; certainly world-class descenders like Porte and Nibali aren’t used to losing it on downhill corners.
It’s true that bike-handlers like those in the race take on tough descents throughout the year, and learn to adapt to all kinds of terrain, but it’s worth remembering that the descent was positioned at the end of a long, tiring day in the saddle, with riders visibly cramping up on the run in to the finish. Judgment would have been impaired, and, given the nature of a prestigious one-day race with the chance of an Olympic medal at the end, the pressure was on to take risks. Honestly, if we were designing the course, we might have placed the descent a little earlier in the day and come up with a different last 20km. It’s often said that cyclists are ‘hard as nails’ (the BBC said as much after the men’s road race), but, Christ, that’s no reason to throw challenges like this at them. The variety of terrain in cycling is a good thing, but there are limits.
Regardless of crashes, we’d like to award a couple of ‘most aggressive rider’ awards. These usually go to the most attacking rider, but also the riders who came away empty handed despite their great efforts. With this in mind, we could award it to Nibali or to Porte, but we’ll stick with the more obvious choice. Seeing Rafal Majka spend everything he had in the tank after a long day of attacks on the climbs was pretty startling, and it was very impressive how long he stayed away alone on the flat run in to the finish through the Copacabana. He was weaving, seemingly against his will, across the road, and his head lolloped from side to side in ungainly fashion. He was, though, caught by Greg Van Avermaet and Jakob Fuglsang before the line, and, as though two opened up the sprint, it became clear just how tired he was. Majka gave little effort to follow, instead looking agonised as he stretched out and slapped a tired and cramping muscle. He rolled across five seconds later for third, and looked like he needed food and bed. And in the women’s race? It has to be the U.S.A’s Mara Abbott. Abbott, too, was soloing away from the descent and along the flat, looking good for the longest time for an Olympic gold. But, as the chase became organized late in the day, she saw her hard work amount to nothing in the closing kilometre. Three riders got past her as Longo Borghini decided to take up the chase singlehandedly. Longo Borghini was also mugged at the line, as Van Der Breggen and Johansson swept by, but at least she got a medal — Abbott will have to make do with our immaterial award for most aggressive ride.
Some recompense, though, for team U.S.A. in general with the women’s time trial. After strong performances from the Netherlands, Italy, and Russia, it was the American Kristin Armstrong who stormed to success on a rainy and windswept course. Amazingly, that’s her third Olympic gold in this discipline, as she also took the top spot in Beijing and London. As has been pointed out on Twitter, when a 43 year-old cyclist to win the time trial at the Olympics it might mean it’s time to rethink the average retirement age within the sport.
…We have in mind, of course, Fabian ‘Spartacus’ Cancellara. We, like most of the pundits out there, predicted a tight TT race between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. Well, we got two-thirds of the podium right, but we missed the top spot. Our outsider pick Kiryienka faded badly, and other key time trial riders fared no better. Tony Martin, apparently out of his usual form, came in at a disappointing 12th, Thomas lost the pace but managed 7th, and Rohan Dennis, who put in one of the best rides of the day, was scuppered by a loose TT bar — after a costly mechanical, he slipped into 5th overall. A mention must go to the outstanding performance from Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo, who was only four seconds off the podium — four seconds off Chris Froome! Dumoulin beat Froome by 15 seconds, but a further 47 seconds ahead was Cancellara. After showing middling form and no big performances in the recent Tour de France, and on a course which, on paper, wasn’t meant for him, Cancellara astounded us with his strong ride and negative splits, and shot to the top of the podium; he managed a 45.343kmph average over a tough, hilly course. He leapt with glee as his name was called at the end of the race, and made a deserving winner. Surely time to at least reconsider the retirement plan, Fabian?
That’s all from us for this Olympics, but we’re looking forward to the Giro, and you’ll hear from us in the run up to the last grand tour of the year. In the meantime, there’s world-class track cycling and a triathlon to watch!