Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) was the surprise winner of the men’s Olympic road race, cruelly dashing Mark Cavendish’s dreams of a gold medal. Vinokourov, leader of a two-man team, didn’t figure in anyone’s reckoning, despite showing flashes of his former brilliant and aggressive self during the recent Tour de France. Yet it was Vino who had jumped away from a large leading group in the final kilometres along with Columbia’s Rigoberto Uran, another unfancied rider. Vino seized his moment with 200 metres remaining, as the pair raced down The Mall unchallenged. With Uran appearing to be momentarily distracted, Vino launched his successful sprint for the line and the gold medal.
Norwegian Alexander Kristoff was best of the rest in the sprint for third and the bronze medal.
It was a disappointing day for GB’s Dream Team – Bradley Wiggins, Ian Stannard, David Millar and Chris Froome – who worked tirelessly, but ultimately fruitlessly, for the world champion. With its much smaller teams of five or less, the Olympic road race is much more problematic to control than the World Championships or the Grand Tours, where the teams comprise up to nine riders. Indeed, prior to the race, UCI President Pat McQuaid had mused that “…..if it splits or a breakaway gets away it could be anyone’s.”
How the race unfolded
An initial break of 12 riders went away after just 20km and its efforts were marshalled by veteran Aussie Stuart O’Grady, taking part in his sixth Olympic Games. The break had established a lead of around six minutes as the peloton raced through Surrey and began the first of nine, 15.5km circuits, which included the 2.6km Box Hill climb (average 5%).
Team GB rode confidently at the front of the peloton trying to control both the break and protect Cavendish. Initially, only the German team, who also did not have a man in the break, lent a hand by committing world time-trial champion Tony Martin to the chase.
The first decisive move took place on the circuit’s third lap, when Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali (third in this year’s Tour de France) attacked only to be joined by none other than Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert (pictured above*). This dangerous duo prompted a reaction from the peloton, which began to cut down the time gap. But on subsequent circuits other riders, such as France’s Sylvain Chavanel and Ukraine’s Andrei Grivko, joined the chasing pair, making it a dangerous group of 11 riders.
The work rate went up considerably on each of the subsequent six laps and the gap plummeted as Team GB team time trialled at the head of the bunch. By this time they’d been joined by a familiar figure, albeit in Austrian colours, as Bernie Eisel took up his usual role as Cav’s wingman, an occurrence that caused great consternation among the Twitterati. It was a war of attrition for everyone else with riders being shelled out the back like proverbial peas. But did Team GB have enough left to stay in contention on the final 48km run back to London?
The two breakaway groups finally came together on the last circuit, forming a large breakaway full of dangerous riders such as Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez and enjoying a gap back to Team GB of just under a minute. While it was the Belgian team who had initiated the junction, it was the teams from Spain, Switzerland and Russia who forced the pace and increased the gap back to the main peloton. Team GB received only limited assistance from Germany in the chase. There was to be no allegiances, no one wanted to deliver Cavendish to the line, even if it meant snuffing out their own sprint aspirations.
The final throw of the dice
With 30km left, Froome was spent and the gap was not closing. The second decisive move came when Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara (pictured above*), who’d unbelievably been allowed to escape in the break, misjudged the corner at 15km to go in Richmond Park and went down hard, injuring his right arm and jeopardising his chance to ride the time trial on Wednesday. The subsequent carnage slowed the chasing peloton and ended any hopes of catching the leading group who, with 10km left, realised the medals were theirs for the taking. Vino and Uran were the first to take their chance – the third decisive move – escaping off the front and building a small lead, with no organised chase behind them. He who dares wins! What a wonderful way to finish a long and eventful career. Afterwards, Vino said:
I said I must attack because if I arrive in the sprint, I won’t have a chance. I had a good jump with Uran, we rode hard together. This is an incredible victory to finish my career.
Cavendish, who came in 40 seconds back, paid tribute to the efforts of his teammates.
They were incredible. I couldn’t be more proud of them. They are absolutely spent. They rode 250km going 60km/h for the last hour. We can’t make excuses. We did everything as we said we’d do and more. To see the guys and the calibre they have to be riding like that. We knew it was going to be like that coming into it. We said we’d just do our race as we wanted to do it and just see what happens.
It seems like most teams are happy not to win as long as we don’t. That’s the story of our life now in cycling. It shows what a strong nation we are and we’ve got to take the positives from that and take it as a compliment. But it’s bitterly disappointing.
Also, very proud to be British today. The support along the whole 250km was beyond belief. Absolutely incredible. Thank you to everyone.— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) July 28, 2012
The result might not have been what British fans were anticipating but support the length of the course was unprecedented as hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the course, proof that cycling is on cloud nine in Britain after this year’s historic Tour success.
A British rider might not have won but the event was most definitely a rip-roaring, gripping edge-of-the-seat success. Just cast your eyes at the results and the names of the riders who finished in the top ten and for whom they rode. This wasn’t what was expected. The race didn’t go as planned and it’s all the better for it. Maybe smaller teams and no race radios is just what races need.
1. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) +5:45:57
2. Rigoberto Uran (Colombia) same time
3. Alexander Kristoff (Norway) +0:08
4. Taylor Phinney (USA) a/t
5. Sergey Lagutin (Uzbekistan) s/t
6. Stuart O’Grady (Australia) s/t
7. Jurgen Roelandts (Belgium) s/t
8. Gregory Rast (Switzerland) s/t
9. Luca Paolini (Italy) s/t
10. Jack Bauer (New Zealand) s/t