Marianne Vos – the reigning Olympic champion on a comeback crusade. Lizzie Armitstead – the current World Champion with a point or two to prove. Megan Guarnier – the #1 World Tour ranked rider of 2016, and winner of the women’s Giro 2016. These three riders alone should provide enough drama and excitement to make this a very memorable Olympic Road Race, and one you’d regret missing.
At 136.9km, the Women’s Road Race doesn’t have the distance of the men’s race, but it does share the same roads — no doubt the women will be watching Saturday’s race closely to see where the breaks are made, what effect the climbs have on the peloton, and just how the final descent and run in will be raced. But before we watch either race, let’s turn our eyes to the favourites for the win.
Australia have a strong line up of Gracie Elvin, Katrin Garfoot, Rachel Neylan, and Amanda Spratt, while also having the advantage of all racing for the same domestic team, Orica AIS. This will work in their favour as they should be able to marshal attacks and control the field more effectively than other nations — something they’ll have to get right if they don’t want to see the stronger riders strike out for a long-range win. Elvin has had decent form this year with an 11th place at Flanders and a 9th place overall on G.C. at the Aviva Women’s Tour. However, at the 2015 World Championships she was 60th whereas Neyland came 19th — so don’t rule out any of the Aussies from taking the lead on the road.
On to the Great Britain team. We’ll breeze past Lizzie Armitstead’s drama here — not because it should be dismissed as unimportant, but because enough has already been said about it by the media and by Lizzie herself. However, the events may have an effect on her competitors who might be feeling a bit sore about it all — it could end up an ‘anyone but Lizzie’ scenario (much like Cav’s misfortune as strong favourite in the 2012 road race, with the peloton not willing to chase down the break in the knowledge that Cav would probably win the sprint if they did). Regardless, what is good news in the G.B. camp is that Emma Pooley is back. Having ‘retired’ (though world champion in long distance duathlon doesn’t sound like retirement to us), she is now back to have a go at Wednesday’s hilly TT course. Pooley has trained all year to attempt gold for that event, so she might not be working too hard for Armitstead – though, to fall back on the 2012 comparisons again, Wiggins certainly put his fair share of work in whilst trying to help Cav in the 2012 road race before he took gold in the TT a few days later. With Nikki Harris rounding out the G.B. team, the lack of a fourth rider might damage Armitstead’s overall chances, but, as she was 2nd in 2012 and convincingly won the World Championships in 2015, she is most definitely one of the favourites for gold here.
You can’t talk about Women’s cycling and not talk about the Netherlands, mainly because of Marianne Vos. Surprisingly, Vos isn’t competing in every discipline possible (though she has the skill to do so), and, since her 2015 season was sidelined by injury, she has had a slow but very steady return to form this year. She took 4th overall at the Aviva Women’s Tour (never placing outside of the top ten on any stage), won 3 stages at the Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen, won a stage at the Tour of California, and, more recently, took 3rd at La Course. Taking gold ahead of Armitstead in the 2012 race, Marianne will be eyeing this up as an opportunity to prove she’s back to her dominant best. But we should note that Anna Van Der Breggen is more than the super domestique for Vos, and she is the other string in the Dutch team’s bow. She was 2nd in 2015 at the World’s, 2nd in TT World’s, 5th at Strade Bianchi, 1st at La Flèche Wallonne, and 3rd on GC at the Women’s Giro d’Italia. Signing to Armitstead’s team Boels-Dolmans next season, Van Der Breggen might want to show her new team who should be calling the shots. Her form is great, and she has shown her ability to go long off the front in races not unlike this road race. Expect the Netherlands to play their hand with Vos first from a long distance, with Van Der Breggen ready to attack if and when the early breaks are brought back.
It’s been a long time since the USA stood on a podium after a women’s Olympic road race, but 2016 is looking like it could be their year. Megan Guarnier is currently ranked #1 on the women’s circuit having won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of California, and, to up her one-day credentials, she won the Philadelphia International Classic. The stages she’s won this year have been thanks to solo attacks, and a whole bunch of top ten finishes in the early year Classics shows she’s got the tactical nous to follow the big moves when necessary, and she’ll be riding a wave of self-belief after her Giro win (which will hopefully outweigh the pressure put on her by her nation). Evelyn Stevens is another super-domestique who could really change the race for Guarnier. The current women’s hour-record holder who is also very highly ranked on climbs (some say she’s the best in the world) could be used to split the peloton apart over the two major climbs of the day, and might force the other teams to show their hands early. Finally, Mara Abbott represents a real opportunity for team USA, with stage wins and the Tour of California polka dots to her name. A very strong team indeed, and perhaps some recompense to American cycling fans disappointed with the slightly lacklustre men’s team this year.
The Italian champion Elisa Longo Borghini comes to the race fresh from winning the Giro’s polka dots jersey, though her classic season was mixed — a fourth in Strade Bianche shows some promise. She brings a strong Italian squad with her, and we’d definitely expect her to make it into the top ten here. The Swedish team is also built around their in-form national champion Emma Johansson. Johansson’s credentials are as a climber, and she and her team will look to shed as many riders as possible on the Vista Chinesa climb. She’ll need a fair amount of luck in the final if the likes of Vos and Armitstead are still around, though. Germany have a good all-round squad, and have their hopes pinned on Claudia Lichtenberg, but Lisa Brennauer has also had a consistently good year so far, so they have a decent enough chance at a strong result here. Finally, France’s hope is the ex-World Champ Pauline Ferrand-Prevot hasn’t had the year we might have expected of such a fine rider, but her focus has been on one-day racing, and she might be looking for form ahead of precisely this race. It might be a big ask for Ferrand-Prevot to win this one, but we’d expect her to at least try her hand and put in a big attack late in the race.
While we’ll be cheering her all the way, we think Lizzie Armitstead is going to struggle against such strong opponents with their stronger teams. We predict a fourth place for Lizzie, with the Dutch appearing on the podium twice — let’s say Marianne Vos retains her gold and Van Der Breggen takes silver. Megan Guarnier, we think, will take bronze at the very least.
Let us close by remarking upon the fact that this is lining up to be an extraordinarily exciting race, and has the potential to overshadow the men’s as it did in 2012 — it’s very open, with a powerful field of riders and a lot of rider-types who will want to take the race in different directions. Without the well-drilled machinery of Team Sky (a.k.a Team G.B. feat. Steve Cummings), there’s no one team that can hope to control this race in the least, let alone from start to finish. We’ll likely see the sorts of strong solo attacks and opportunistic riding that the men’s professional peloton has been moving away from in the last decade. Let’s hope this contributes to the continuing rise of the woman’s side of the sport, and that T.V. coverage keeps growing.