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. Continue reading

VeloEye view of the men’s Olympic road race

VeloVoices’ good friend, photographer Roz Jones, was among the crowd’s at yesterday’s Olympic men’s road race and was on hand to capture the drama leading up to Alexandre Vinokourov‘s triumph on the Mall. With her kind permission, we have reproduced here are a few of her shots from the day as she took up residence close to the 15km to go mark.

Gilbert can’t catch a break

It said much about the form of Philippe Gilbert – officially the top-ranked rider of 2011 – that (a) he felt it necessary to get into a risky break a long way out and (b) no one really believed it was going to work. Ultimately it was an instrumental move in scuppering Mark Cavendish‘s chances of victory, but that will have been of little consolation to Gilbert, who eventually finished 19th in the remnants of the break, eight seconds behind the leading two.

Philippe Gilbert (left) leads the break (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

Vino’s retirement gift to himself

Instead it was left to Vinokourov – a silver medallist in the road race in Sydney in 2000 – to launch the decisive attack along with Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran. A much-loved racer with a controversial past – he served a ban after being found guilty of blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France and has never repented – he announced he would retire after next week’s individual time trial.

Gold medallist Alexandre Vinokourov (centre) in the breakaway before launching the race-winning attack (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

Cancellara crashes out of contention

Also in the break and a strong candidate for victory was Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara. One of the best bike handlers in the peloton, it was a shock to see him crash into the barriers on a corner about 16km from home. Although he did eventually climb back on to his bike to finish the race, his hopes of victory were long gone. He had sustained a bad shoulder bruise with internal bleeding which left him in obvious discomfort, as the post-crash image below clearly illustrates.

Cancellara alone and in pain after his crash (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

His status for Wednesday’s time trial – a discipline in which he is the defending Olympic champion – remains uncertain. Even if he does start, it will certainly boost the chances of the British duo of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, the historic winner and runner-up of this year’s Tour de France.

Britain stands alone (almost)

With almost everyone else leaving the British team to do the chasing on behalf of Cavendish, the peloton struggled to peg back the break’s lead much below one minute until it was too late. Even with the massive power of Wiggins, Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard available, it was a bridge too far for a team which had had to sit on the front for virtually the entire day. Germany lent former world time trial champion Bert Grabsch to the chase, but the negative tactics of others meant the chase was an unequal one, leaving Cavendish and the other sprinters to compete for a lowly 27th position, 40 seconds behind Vinokourov.

The peloton chases, with Germany’s Grabsch leading the British team – but too little, too late (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

Cadel has nowhere to go

Another sprinter who will have been disappointed that the race did not end in a bunch gallop is Cavendish’s former teammate Matt Goss. Despite boasting 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans in their squad, Australia steadfastly refused to do any work whatsoever in the chase.

Cavendish was critical of them afterwards, but once they had managed to sneak the veteran Stuart O’Grady into the break late on, they had no real reason to chase. It left Evans as a fairly anonymous figure hidden in the middle of the pack, unable to put his prodigious engine to use to help support Goss. O’Grady finished out of the medals in sixth.

Former Tour de France champion Cadel Evans cut an anonymous figure (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

In the end, an expectant partisan home crowd were left feeling disappointed, but that didn’t stop the race from producing both dramatic stories and dramatic images. Thanks to Roz for sharing hers with us!

You can follow Roz Jones on Twitter and find more of her photographic work at Roz Jones Photography. She also operates On The Road Cycling Tours for anyone interested in viewing the sport up close and personal – you can find out more on the website here.

Men’s Olympic road race review

Olympic Podium l to r Uran, Vinokourov, Kristoff (image courtesy of Mikkel Conde)

Olympic Podium l to r Uran, Vinokourov, Kristoff (image courtesy of Mikkel Conde)

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.

Gilbert’s efforts in the break came to nought (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

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

Cancellara alone and in pain after his crash (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

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.

Disappointed but….

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.

Positive note

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.

Conclusion

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.

Result

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