Cycling fans won’t have to wait long for something to cheer about in the 2016 edition of the Olympic Games — the men’s road race is on the first official day of events, and the women’s follows the next day (likewise, our preview of the women’s race is coming soon). It barely feels as though four years have passed since the summer of Bradley Wiggins’ win at the Tour de France (and Chris Froome’s first clamber onto the podium). That year they both repeated podiumsuccess in the men’s time trial, with Wiggins taking gold ahead of Tony Martin and Chris Froome. But it wasn’t the result many people wanted in the road race, when Alexandre Vinokourov snuck away from the day’s break and beat the strange pairing of Rigoberto Uran and Alexander Kristoff to the line. Vinokourov, a past doper and now the current manager of team Astana in their stickiest-of-sticky bottles era, was not the champion many people had been hoping for.
On to the course itself. The course is wildly different to 2012’s, but the lesson that should be learnt from 2012 is that the Olympic road race can play out very differently to expectations, with an apparent sprint stage going to a lone breaker. It’s a 232.5km race of two halves, with the first taking place on a rolling set of loops around what will essentially be the individual time trial circuit, and which takes in the neighbourhood of Copacabana and its famous beach. The circuit amounts to three laps of two category 2 climbs, one of which, the Grumari, is little over a kilometre but averages 9%. It starts off gently enough, but after 600m the climb quickly pitches up to over 10% and then stays there, with a brutal 150m at around 18%. This means that there will be plenty feeling the burn after the first 100km of the race — barely two fifths of the way in. There are 23 countries with only one rider apiece in this race (out of a maximum of five), and you can expect a few of them to fall off the pace on the first few loops if they’re raced quickly.
The second circuit will centre around the Vista Chinesa climb. The name means the ‘Chinese View’ climb, and it refers to a pagoda-like structure at the summit that commemorates the work of Chinese migrant workers in Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century (and will no doubt be fodder for in-race helicopter shots). This is, at any rate, where things will become interesting, with the riders taking on four ascents of the tough, 8.9km climb. It’s officially a 6.8% average, but its difficulty is belied by the kilometre of descending in the middle. Much of the first half of the climb is around or above 10%, with the latter half offering slopes closer to the average. The descent will offer only the briefest of respite, as it’s likely to be taken at greater speed with each successive climb. It also looks like the perfect place for a good bike handler to attack, meaning there is scope here for a variety of outcomes on this climb alone, with attacks from descenders and punchy climbers alike. Following the climb each time is an exceptionally sharp descent back to nearly sea level, and after the fourth and final descent there will be a further 20km of flat roads back into Rio for the finish.
Before considering favourites, we need to bring together the facts that will determine how this is raced. First, it is, of course, a one-day race. That means the pace will be high, and weaker riders or those with smaller teams will easily be dropped before the end. This is compounded by the fact that this is a monstrously long day in the saddle, at 237.5km. Third, the climbs, taken individually, are tough, and taken accumulatively amount to over 3,300m of categorized climbing (with plenty of bumps and kick ups along the way). Lastly, though the definitive selection will be made on either the penultimate or very last climb after much whittling down, the winner will have to either get away and stay away on the descent and solo to victory, or else successfully out-sprint his rivals from a much-reduced bunch. We’re looking for the nations with the strongest teams, with a clear candidate who can climb, descend, and sprint (or else has a rouleur’s engine), and has the staying power to survive a long and potentially hot day in the saddle (it’s set to be 29 degrees in Rio this Saturday).
There are only five teams entering with the full roster of five riders, and they represent nearly all of the big favourites for this race. Let’s begin at home with Great Britain, who bring the collective might of Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome, Adam Yates, Ian Stannard, and Steve Cummings to the games. We’d expect Stannard’s role to be to help set the pace during the first 150km of the racing, and he’ll be the first to disappear in the mountains. It would be the stuff of dreams to see Cummings get into a strong breakaway and go long as he did in the tour, but don’t bet on it here. His huge engine will be put to the service of the team leader, and he’ll be under strict orders not to roll the dice in breaks; remember, too, that he’s in the minority as a non-Sky rider here, so he won’t be the obvious choice for leader. Thomas is likely to be on duty as super-domestique, so that leaves Yates and Froome. Both are undeniably on great form, and though Froome has the experience, Yates already has a better reputation as a one-day racer. It’s not unimaginable that Team G.B. would work for the younger man, especially with his recent performance in San Sebastian — in many respects, a scaled-down Olympic road race. It’ll be interesting to see who is elected leader come Saturday, but there are many cards to play here.
Spain might suffer from their usual problem of leadership crisis, given the rival egos of the great grand tour and one-day racers Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez. It might go Valverde’s way, simply because he ranked one place higher than Rodriguez in San Sebastian — however, both were in the top five. There’s no doubting that they have one of the strongest teams here, with support from Jonathan Castroviejo, Imanol Erviti, and the currently sensational Jon Izagirre (who took a stage in the Tour de France). Their best bet will be to burn their strong climbing forces for both Purito and Valverde, and to let them both play their hands towards the end of the race. For Rodriguez, the final climb will have to act as springboard for a long, long attack. Valverde could also use this tactic, but he’s under less pressure to dispatch all his rivals. Everyone knows that if a group of ten or so riders are left to race for the win, Valverde will be amongst the best sprinters there if he’s made it across.
Colombia have easily one of the best squads in terms of total firepower, but they might not necessarily have the right man to win here. Their leader is likely to be Rigoberto Uran, who has pedigree in one-day races, plus a sprint to rival Valverde’s. He was also, as mentioned, second in the 2012 road race, showing he knows which moves to mark. He’ll find excellent climbing support from Esteban Chaves, Miguel Angél López, and Sergio Henao — it really is a stellar squad. Their plan B will most likely be the in-form Jarlinson Pantano. With recent wins in the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France, and a decent enough San Sebastian (he was 23rd, having followed the right moves but fading too early), Pantano looks like a good back up plan for Colombia. The question will be whether Uran, who plays it strong and steady and eschews the riskier and chancy tactics of Pantano et al, has what it takes to get better than silver.
Another one of the few favourites who could out-sprint Valverde is Italy‘s Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali’s Tour de France was a mixed bag, as he rode invisibly some days, seemed to physically suffer others, but threw down strong and threatening attacks on rare golden occasions. He’s got fine form in the long and fast descents, and he’ll look to ditch everyone on the downhill. But will Fabio Aru willingly ride for him, or will there be some Spanish-style vying for leadership out on the road? However it plays out, the massive firepower of Diego Rosa, Damiano Caruso, and Alessandro de Marchi marks Italy out as a force to be reckoned with here.
The fifth team with a full roster is Belgium, who are pinning their hopes to Greg Van Avermaet, with Philippe Gilbert a back-up plan. But can either one of them hope to cling to the select group on the big climbs? GVA’s best bet will be to hold on at the rear of the pack and, if he loses ground, to make it back up on the descents if possible. If he tags back on in that 20km flat section before the finish then he can begin to dream about the podium, as he’s the closest this race will get to a climber-sprinter. But we should also mention Tim Wellens. Wellens was at the pointy end of San Sebastian, and came in 13th overall — so some good form right now. He’s very, very good at going long, and he has the ability to do so here if the right breakaway goes and he’s in it. It would be a long shot, but expect Belgium to look to get Wellens in whatever move goes. There’s going to be great climbing support from Tour top-ten finisher Serge Pauwels, and ‘rouleur’ duty will go to Laurens De Plus for the opening circuits.
Further down the list, we need to consider the Netherlands and their absurdly powerful four-man team of Wout Poels, Steven Kruijswijk, Tom Dumoulin, and Bauke Mollema. Given Mollema’s recent Tour de France showing, and his win in San Sebastian, he looks like a good bet here. However, the long flat section at the end means he’d need a good gap or else a good sprint, and we’re not sure it will play that way. Wout Poels has been climbing better than nearly anyone in the peloton recently, and it’ll be fun to watch him duke it out against his usual captain Chris Froome on the ascents. Dumoulin’s likely saving his legs for the time trial, for which he is a big favourite, though he’ll also be riding back into shape given his recent hand injury. It’ll be interesting to see if he makes it over the climbs with the lead group, as his excellent time trial abilities might greatly aid Mollema on the flat.
The problem for France will be how to make a team gel when it comprises Romain Bardet, Julian Alaphilippe, Alexis Vuillermoz, and Warren Barguil. However, these are all strong and in-form climbers, and if they were to rally around, say, Bardet or Alaphilippe then there’s a definite chance at something great here for France. We have concerns that Alaphilippe might fade on the later climbs, as he has done recently, so we’ll suggest Bardet for best placed Frenchman.
Poland have a good team lined up, spearheaded by the Tour’s polka dot jersey winner Rafal Majka as well as ex-world champ Michal Kwiatkowski; it’s rounded off with Michal Golas and Maciej Bodnar, the latter of whom is flying at the moment (think of his stunning TT work and lead out for the Sagan-Froome one-two in the Tour de France). Kwiatkowski is favoured by the bookies here, despite patchy form; some good signs in the Tour de Pologne gave way to 107th in San Sebastian, a race that should have suited him. We think Majka is the best bet here, and he’d be looking to make a move with a few talented climbers — Bardet and Mollema, perhaps — and to go long.
Ireland have only two men, but it’s the kind of duo you’d want for a day like this. Dan Martin comes here in the shape of his life, and stands a very good chance of getting over the climbs in the front group. He’ll need a strong tactical game to take the win here though, and might have to try going long on the flat. With excellent support from Nicolas Roche, he should be in good shape on the Vista Chinesa at any rate.
Finally, Australia‘s squad, presumably built around Richie Porte, looks very good. Porte should be able to match most attacks on the climbs, can descend well, and can time trial away on his own if need be. Aided by the powerful Rohan Dennis, plus Simon Clarke and Glenn O’Shea, Porte’s got a good chance here, and definitely seems underrated by the bookies.
Time for our picks, then. For out-and-out gold medal favourite, we really think this one has to be Alejandro Valverde‘s. His form is superb, even after top tens in the year’s first two grand tours, and he made the podium ably and comfortably in San Sebastian. He likes the heat, he likes the climbs, he can descend better than most, but he has that most crucial of components for a day like this: a strong sprint after a long day of racing. For podium picks, look at Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome. Nibali as a choice represents common-sense for a course like this, with the descent and long flat section. Froome requires a little more justification –but not much more. His form really is exceptional at the moment, and we even saw him riding at the front of the peloton and attacking in the RideLondon race over the weekend. He’s riding like a man both in love with the sport, and at the very top of his game, and we’d expect him to go full-gas to get a medal here. It’s worth remembering that, whilst he’s not known for his sprint, he has a very good kick to the line. G.B.’s best bet will be to whittle down the pack as much as possible on the climb, to place Froome and/or Yates in the lead group, and to hope Valverde’s sprint is a little off at the end of the day. Failing that, Froome and Yates together might hope to work their way off the front, though that was a tactic that fell apart for Thomas and Stannard on the RideLondon course — which might have been a practice run for the Rio tactics.
Finally, our outsiders. On a good day, we think Bauke Mollema has the form for this (he’s great value at the bookies), Richie Porte the requisite skill set (if he’s not already thinking ahead to the time trial), and Julian Alaphilippe the tenacity and aggression. We would love, absolutely love, to see one of the Colombian riders get a medal here, and either of Rigoberto Uran or Jarlinson Pantano has a great chance. But we’ll tell you one thing: this should be a spectacular last 70km.