Men’s Olympic road race: round-table

Saturday’s men’s Olympic road race ended in disappointment for the hundreds of thousands of fans lining the route hoping for a Mark Cavendish victory. But a bold late attack did provide a fairy-tale ending to the controversial career of Alexandre Vinokourov. Add to that some farcical media coverage, and the VeloVoices team had plenty to talk about when we got together to discuss it this morning. Here’s what we had to say.

So, let’s get right to it: Alexandre Vinokourov, Rigoberto Uran and Alexander Kristoff; gold, silver, bronze. What do we think of the podium?

A controversial winner, perhaps, but a great story (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Panache: I’ve always enjoyed the panache of Alexandre Vinokourov and this is a beautiful way to cap a long and controversial career. The parcours really suited Classics riders. The Swiss, Spanish and US riders knew they had to put pressure on Sky to have a possibility of victory. I was not shocked or surprised to see Vinokourov in the finale. Uran and Kristoff recognised the opportunity and took advantage of it. Sadly, I believe that if Fabian Cancellara had not crashed that he would have gone off the front of the field for a solo victory.

Kitty: I thought it was an incredible race. Personally, I was gutted it wasn’t Cancellara on the podium but I thought it was a fitting way for one of the most controversial riders in the modern peloton to go out of the sport. I’ve always liked Vino – he’s done his ban, he’s as entitled to race as anyone else and if he’s entitled to race, there’s a chance he might win. That is sport. He was as deserving to be there as, say, David Millar.

Tim: I’m somewhat ambivalent about Vino. I’ve always loved him as a racer: Thomas Voeckler aside, he’s just about the last of the kamikaze attackers. And he has indeed served his time. But I do wish he had shown at least a touch of remorse about his sins. That aside, I’m delighted for him. As for Uran and Kristoff – who’d have thought they would win medals ahead of Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan? Great stuff.

Sheree: I wonder what odds we’d have got for that podium before the race? I’m personally delighted with the result and am looking forward to the celebratory party – the vodka’s on ice.

Jack: I agree with Sheree. Vino’s a polarising figure, and I’ve always been on the side of love rather than hate. It is a magnificent way to bow out – should he decide to retire! Knowing Vino I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see him ride out one final season in a gold-coated Astana kit. As for Uran, a terrific ride from an exciting young rider – and no matter what he had tried in the final kilometre, I don’t believe he’d have been able to beat his Kazakh companion.

Mark Cavendish said in the press that he thought other teams – specifically the Australians – were racing negatively and would rather see Team GB lose than risk it and take the win for themselves. Do we believe this to be the case? 

Tim: I think some countries did ride negatively. And I do understand Cav’s frustration, but the Aussies were the wrong target for his anger. Once they had put Stuart O’Grady in the break, they were fully justified in not chasing. What the Australians did clearly reveal, however, was that they had no confidence in Matt Goss. GB wanted a sprint. Germany wanted a sprint. Australia did everything they could to avoid one.

Cav was understandably disappointed, but we disagree with his criticism of the Aussies (image by Panache)

Panache: Meh … I’ve never understood the concept of ‘riding negatively’. No team was interested in dragging Cavendish to the finish line. Great Britain lost because they let a large group of exceptional riders go off the front and they only had four men to bring it back. Why would you ever let Cancellara into a break with two teammates on this type of parcours? Seemed to me that most of the other competitive countries had riders in that break as well.

Kitty: I think that it was either unbelievably naive or unbelievably arrogant for Team GB to think that any other team was going to help them. Those guys were all talking big and bad in the press prior to the race: ‘the strongest team ever put together’, etc etc, so why would other teams give them help? That said, not sure what the Germans were hoping to get out of that, other than perhaps trying to tire out Cav’s teammates. But the Aussies had O’Grady in the break and sent Rogers up the road halfway through – is that negative racing? I don’t think so.

Sheree: Why would the Aussies work when they had a man in the break? The Germans did lend a hand from time to time but weren’t obligated to in any way. Sadly, however well you plan, things just don’t always pan out the way you hoped despite your very best endeavours. That’s life.

Tim: Agreed. GB’s ‘failure’ was not Cav’s fault. It was not the team’s fault. It wasn’t even the tacticians’ fault. Sometimes stuff just happens in the moment. That’s cycling for you.

Jack: No disagreement here.

Two teams who didn’t race negatively were the Spanish and the Swiss, two strong teams that GB let get up the road. Do we think it was the absence of race radios that let some of the strongest men in the peloton slip past GB to get in the break – riders like Cancellara, Valverde, LL Sanchez?

Jack: I highly doubt it. They would have seen the moves being made, and would have made conversation with other riders about who they saw going up the road. It was a remarkably strong break though, and credit to the Spanish team especially for riding such an aggressive race.

Did Millar make the wrong call? Hindsight’s a wonderful thing! (image courtesy of Richard Baybutt)

Kitty: I agree, I think it was more a case of ‘stick to the plan, stick to the plan, stay together, stay together’ with GB. This seems to be the case with Sky/GB: there is no Plan B, so if Plan A doesn’t come off, then they’re stuck. It’s okay when you’re able to control the race, but pretty disastrous when you can’t.

Sheree: Interestingly a number of commentators thought Team GB provided their own undoing by closing down the break too early, leaving a bridgeable gap on the final Box Hill circuit which was when most of those riders went across.

Tim: I think it’s all too easy to pick holes in GB’s actions with the benefit of hindsight. They had their plan, and they stuck to it. Maybe they should have let the break have more space. Perhaps they should have sent Ian Stannard up the road when the Cancellara group went. The fact is we don’t really know whether either of those plans would have made any difference. As road captain, David Millar had to make a rapid call as to whether to deviate from the plan. He chose not to, but no blame should be applied for that. It’s a tough call to make on the spot.

Panache: Ha ha ha … 20-something guys (especially those guys) just don’t sneak away without you knowing about it. I didn’t hear anyone from the British team say “Cancellara, Phinney, Van Garderen, Sanchez, Vino et cetera all snuck away before we realised it.” We don’t use radios in my races and we know when the strong riders make moves especially a group of that size.

Nearing the end of the circuits on Box Hill, Bernie Eisel started blatantly riding for Mark Cavendish, even though he was in an Austrian jersey. This ruffled the feathers of a lot of the Twitterati. Any thoughts? 

Sheree: Who pays Bernie’s wages? Is it the Austrian Cycling Federation? No! This type of thing typically happens in the Olympics and the World Championships and no one should evince an iota of surprise. Alex might have been one of a two-man team from Kazakhstan but who were teammates Andrei Grivko and Janez Brajkovic riding for? It most certainly wasn’t Ukraine and Slovenia.

Bernie knows who pays his wages … (image courtesy of Sky)

Kitty: I just wonder what the Austrian team boss had to say about that. We knew Bernie was never going to win, but why take him if he was going to race for another team?

Tim: Who cares? Much though I love interactions with other fans on Twitter, we do have a tendency to be holier than thou about things sometimes. Like any other race, the Olympics is not one event in isolation. There is a wider tapestry of personal and team allegiances, favours set up from earlier races and promises of support in the future. Bernie knew his best chance of a medal was to work with Cav, and that’s what he did.

Panache: The question is, were there Austrian riders that could win in the break? If not, Eisel was working with Cav’s team to chase down the break to give other Austrians in the field a chance. I say no big deal.

Jack: It’s hardly surprising, and I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s how it always has been, and probably always will be. Clearly Vasil Kiryienka rather fancies a contract at Sky!

Building on that theme of ‘national pride’, what did we think of the press coverage and Twitter responses to Team GB? 

Kitty: Much of the mainstream press coverage was appalling in its lack of understanding of cycling. To put on the front page of a newspaper that the race was won by a ‘nobody’ – what?! There are a ton of great cycling journalists out there – get them to write this! And the BBC’s coverage was embarrassing. The commentary team of Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter couldn’t distinguish one rider from another. For Porter to say that Cancellara was a strong sprinter was not the fault of the pictures he was getting. He didn’t know anything about the riders – and Boardman wasn’t much better. Shocking! I reckon we should offer our services next time!

The front page of the Mail on Sunday’s sport section. Words fail us

Panache: Vino a ‘nobody’? That sounds like something an American paper would print. Even NBC recognised Vino’s history, passion and aggressive style. Speaking of national pride though, how about my boys Tejay Van Garderen and Taylor Phinney? Tejay rode his heart out for Phinney, who just missed the podium. The race showed that these young Americans are not the future, they are the now!

Tim: Tejay and Taylor were unlucky to miss out. The Mail on Sunday’s headline was appalling. Vino a ‘nowhere man’ – really? Hello folks, ever heard of Wikipedia? Now I expect that kind of jingoistic nonsense from the Mail, but for BBC Sport editor David Bond to ask Cav if the reason he lost was because he was tired after the Tour was profoundly ignorant and insulting, as well as poor journalism, plain and simple. (Start with an open question, not a closed one!) Bond’s defence is that he was only asking the question the man in the street would have asked, but isn’t the point of good journalism to raise the debate and enlighten the public, not act as some servile mouthpiece for the lowest common denominator?

Sheree: Thankfully I don’t have to suffer the inaccuracies and prejudices of the British press. Vive L’Equipe – need I say more? I did watch a smidgeon of BBC3’s coverage and while I appreciate that Porter is a national treasure, like David Duffield, he needs to be put out to grass and replaced with someone younger and more knowledgeable. I’m with Kitty on this, Porter’s other gig is the World Championships, so to call Cancellara a sprinter was unpardonable.

Jack: Agree with Sheree – Porter is a national treasure, but there’s a simple solution. He’s fine commentating on the track, so leave him in the velodrome! Staying with the theme of the true horror of the Daily Mail – columnist Jan Moir described the winner of the women’s road race Marianne Vos – widely regarded as the best cyclist of her generation – as “some bitch from Holland.” Quite extraordinary.

Tim: Sadly, this is nothing new from Moir, who can only be considered a ‘journalist’ in name only. Disgraceful.

Any final thoughts?

Sheree: I was concerned by a number of comments from riders who complained the route wasn’t well marshalled, the fans were allowed to stray too far out into the road and directeurs sportif were unversed in driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’. This demonstrated GB’s lack of experience in these matters. If only they’d accepted an offer of assistance from someone well-versed in race organisation and management who speaks numerous languages to boot!

Tim: I have no idea who you mean there(!) I’ve heard similar eyewitness reports from other spectators along the route. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see so much enthusiasm from so many on the course, but their inexperience also made it dangerous.

Kitty: One thing that I was appalled by were the number of ‘fans’ who said that, with Cancellara possibly out of the TT because of his crash, this was good news for Wiggins. And Tim, you even did it in your piece with Roz’s pictures. There are riders I can’t stand but I never wish injury on them so that riders I like can do better – I think looking at the upside of another rider’s injury is sickening. I just get enraged every time I think about it.

Tim: I was terribly sad for Fabian. No rider deserves to see his chances extinguished like that. As fans, we want races to be decided on the road, not by the side of it. Factually, though, Cancellara’s crash is good news for Wiggins (and Froome) in terms of their chances in the TT. But neither of them would have wanted it that way.

Kitty: I know you didn’t necessarily mean it like that but there were people on Twitter who actually seemed quite gleeful – yeah, yeah, they’re idiots [they are indeed - Ed] but still. Of course this means it changes the playing field for Wednesday but I just take offence against people saying it’s a good thing specifically for someone else. It was the same with the big crash in the first week of the Tour – people saying how good it was for Sky.

Panache: It is difficult to complain about a large number of uneducated fans showing up to watch a road race. As a racer, I say the more people the better! Most of the rider tweets I read expressed excitement about the number and the enthusiasm of fans. This was one of the better Olympic road races we’ve seen in a while. Great job by the host nation!

Jack: Panache is right – if Cavendish had won the race itself may have been a bit of an anticlimax! As it was, the race was decided in a thrilling finish, with constant attacking and never really knowing whether the break would be caught. I was certainly on the edge of my seat!

Tim: Overall, I think we’d all agree it was a good, exciting race, unpredictable and favouring those willing to be bold. A proper one-day Classic race, in other words. It didn’t have the result many hoped for, but it certainly had more than its fair share of drama. And that’s what we really want from sport, right?

Links: Men’s Olympic road race review, Preview

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5 thoughts on “Men’s Olympic road race: round-table

  1. Neil says:

    A good race, but what a strange podium: a veteran about to retire, a climber and without being disrespectful a 2nd string sprinter, but they took their chance. It showed the globalisation of cycling as well with none of the medalists coming from traditionally strong cycling nations.
    I think GB got their tactics wrong. Going into the race there were probably only 4 or 5 teams that had a sprinter as their main medal chance GB, Australia, Germany, Belarus and Slovakia. Once Australia put a man in break they wouldn’t work, Sagan was only man on the Slovak team and Belarus had a team of 2: Hutarovich, a sprinter and Kiryienka (which is why he was working with GB). So just 4 riders to had to reel in the break because for some reason Germany wouldn’t help. The other teams knew that if they attacked in numbers with quality riders they could stay clear. Britain were victims of their own success with the strongest team in the race. It was hard to see them being stitched up like that on home turf, but the other teams worked hard to defeat the strongest team, which is what make can make sport so exciting. The race also showed that smaller teams might produce more exciting racing.
    As for the mainstream British media’s coverage of cycling it is embarassing as shown by that headline. Even the reports on the BBC website are quite obviously written by someone that has no knowledge of cycling. Which is why I come to VeloVoices for my cycling news!
    I think the BBC coverage was poor, but the commentators weren’t helped by the broadcasters not providing them with timechecks, race radio or correct captions. In the final kilometres a caption stated it was Henao that had escaped with Vino! I have never liked Hugh Porter as a commentator on road races. He seems to have less knowledge about the riders than an average fan. Btw Sheree I think Hugh might have got the idea Fabian was a sprinter from last years World Champs where he missed out on 3rd place by inches in a bunch sprint!
    The size of the crowds showed the increased popularity of cycling in Britain and the passion for sport. When are we going to see more major races in the UK?
    Finally, wasn’t the women’s race brilliant! It was such a change from the last women’s race I watched; last year’s World Championships, which was the worst race I’ve ever seen.
    Apologies for such a long post. Keep up the good work!!!

    • Neil, thanks for sharing your thoughts and absolutely no need for apologies!

      I think with hindsight GB got their tactics wrong, at least in terms of controlling the time gap and then pursuing the key break. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but like you say there were some elements which were all too predictable. Germany were always going to offer a bit of help, but not too much – especially once Tony Martin had abandoned. Australia were always likely to hedge their bets, with their low confidence in Goss. and one or more of the other top countries – as it turned out, Spain and Switzerland – were always likely to attempt a long-range Classics-style attack as this was their only viable chance. Fundamentally the race was too long and the team too small to be sure GB could control the race. It’s hard enough to control a 200km TDF stage with a team of nine – trying to do so on a hilly course for 250km with just five was always ambitious. Even so, all it would have taken is for two countries to have contributed another rider each and i fully believe the break would have been caught. But it wasn’t to be. On such fine margins are medals decided – it’s certainly not as clear-cut as some fans have made it sound.

      On the broadcasting side, the BBC had no choice over the broadcast images. Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) has a monopoly over broadcast rights – cushy number, that – and I’m sure I read somewhere that former UCI President Hein Verbruggen is involved with them somewhere. The poor commentary, of course, was entirely the BBC’s fault.

      The less said about the Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday, the better. Odious rag.

      it will be interesting to see if the Tour of Britain benefits from bigger crowds. It’s not a particularly high quality race, but it alwaysahas a sprinkling of big names and from personal experience I can vouch for the fact it’s good fun. I was at a stage finish in Newbury a few years back, where I clearly remember Stuey O’Grady leading out Matt Goss for the win. And they’ve also had Cav, Renshaw, EBH, Michael Albasini …

  2. Sheree says:

    Neil
    Thanks for your feedback, it’s always great to hear from those who visit our blog and who share our passion, and it’s attendant frustrations, for road racing. I have to say that I was amazed at the poor quality of the BBC commmentary and while I appreciate that it outsourced the filming it doesn’t excuse its poor choice of operator, I’m sure French television would have been only too pleased to assist!
    You might well be right about High Porter’s assumption that Spartacus was a sprinter given last year’s World Championships but nonetheless he’s way past retirement.
    Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for our coverage of the Men’s time-trial race.

  3. Thanks – I enjoyed this discussion very much.

    I’d be interested to hear more about what you all think about the absence of earpieces. Of course there are other ways for riders to find out what’s going on up the road, but I did like the idea that the riders on the course had to make their own decisions, and make them fast.

    • Personally I’m in both camps. I understand and support the argument in support of race radios that they can aid rider safety – even if only occasionally, I’m all in favour of anything which reduces physical risk – but I also think their absence adds an additional random variable which makes racing more interesting.

      What appeared to happen here is that GB road captain David Millar was forced into a critical decision – chase the Cancellara break, send one man (probably Stannard) to infiltrate it, or stick to Plan A. In the heat of the moment and without the aid of the team car, he selected the last option and it proved to not be a winning decision. OK, even with a radio they might still have made the same decision, but the onus here was on the rider to decide. It puts decision-making back in the riders’ hands, and I like that. It may only make a difference occasionally, but when it does it leads to high drama because it demands quick and intelligent thinking from riders, and even a hugely experienced rider such as Millar can get it wrong. Top level sport is as much about the mental side as the physical one.

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