The Olympics come to town and what better way to show off Rio de Janeiro than a bike race under the gaze of the Cristo Redentor statue, past the Copacabana beach and a coastal run that includes cobbles, climbs through the jungle and some tense descents. It’s a fine route and add to this a stellar starting list, small teams to make the race uncontrollable and it makes for a mouthwatering weekend of racing.
The course: 237.5km. The race starts by the Copacabana fort and then heads west along the coast via Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca until they reach the Grumari circuit after 37km
Here they begin four 27.4km loops with two identified hills, Grumari and Grota Funda but note the other bumps along the coast at the start of the circuit, they kick up too. Part of the coastal road is cobbled too, it’s more a beach access road than a highway, sections have been tarmacked recently for the TT but this is already a place to string out the field and see some unlucky riders puncture.
The Grumari climb takes them away from the coast up to a lookout point with sea views. It snakes up a narrow road amid tropical woodland with some tight bends and some steep sections. The graphic above claims 24.1% but that’s hard to find but if it’s 12-14% that’s plenty. The descent is steeper and twistier before picking up a wider road.
The second Grota Funda is up the Avenue das Americas, listed as 2km at 6.8% but measured at 4.4%. Either way it’s on a wide steady road and should not be tactical, it just wears down the riders and adds to the vertical gain. A reciprocal descent follows with wide bends and gentle slopes down. After four circuits of these hills and the cobbled coast road they’ve done 137.8km and return east along the coast past Barra da Tijuca
After 162km / 74.6km to go they start three laps of the 25.5km Vista Chinesa circuit with the double Canoas-Vista Chinesa climb along the way.
The Canoas road is as the profile shows, 4km at 10% making it the most selective part of the course and where many riders fill find their hopes dashed. There’s a quick 1km descent and then the Vista Chinesa climb, 4km at an average of 6% and then a brief descent to the actual Vista Chinesa (“Chinese lookout”). It’s all on twisting roads shaded by tropical vegetation, here’s a taster pic via Google:
Note the shade and the kerb. The descent is 4km at 10% and technical for the way it bends through the woodland, this is not a linear collection of ramps and hairpins but instead a twisting run down to the coast before a flat 12km run back to the Canoas climb again.
The Finish: once past the Vista Chinesa climb there’s less than 15km to the finish with the technical descent and then a flat beach run to the line. This might sound anodyne but it’s a crucial part of the course, the descent and then a significant flat run to the line. There’s no point a climber clipping away over the top on the last climb as they’ll struggle to stay away solo. Instead the flat section allows riders to regroup and therefore will prompt the climbers to launch their moves earlier. They head back to Copacabana and a flat finish by the beach. The final corner with 500m to go is a wide, gentle bend.
The Scenario: this is unlike all the other races we’re used to. For starters it’s once every four years, the cliché goes that “to win you have to be prepared to lose” only this holds when a loss can be amended the very next day or the following weekend. Here there’s no second chance and it should put more pressure on the riders to commit to moves rather than hold back.
Next is the composition of the field where the largest teams (Belgium, Colombia, Great Britain, Italy, Spain) have five riders each which is not enough to try and control the field and, then 10 other nations have teams of four and so on. By the time we get to the smaller nations they’ve got riders who won’t last too long in the race and it’s likely the larger nations conspire to burn them off early so as to thin the field and reduce risks meaning the race is even more compact and concentrated by the time they reach the final circuits.
As ever there’s a tension between country and employer. You might remember the London 2012 games and the sight of several Team Sky riders pulling hard on the front despite, say, their Belarus team kit. That example seemed particular explicit as if the British team had co-opted allies as part of a plan but there’s the implicit alliances as well, for example if Wout Poels jumped away would Britain’s Team Sky contingent chase him down; would Jacob Fuglsang spend energy trying to haul back Astana colleague Fabio Aru or would he rather let others do it? Will future team mates Vincenzo Nibali and Rui Costa tread on each other’s toes? The peloton politics are endless and if most race as hard as they can keep your eyes open in case of odd tactics.
We should see an elimination race where the field is thinned down over the climbs. The small teams mean if the big hitters chose to go on the second last time up the climb they can force a selection and leave everyone floundering behind. Many of the climbers in the race will need to try this because if they wait until the last last lap there’s no point taking 30 seconds over the top of the climb only to get reeled in on the run in.
The Contenders: there are a lot of contenders for this race and given the tactics outlined above it’s hard to imagine how the final two laps will play out. Add on mystery about the form of some riders and also the motivation, how many are in Rio for the fun of it, how many have aimed for the Tour de France, how many are building for the Vuelta and how many have made this a genuine priority. A cop out from trying to pick a winner? Perhaps but this uncertainty is what makes the race such a compelling prospect.
The prototype rider is one who can climb very well to cope with the hills, especially the Canoas climb of 4km at 10% and once they’ve made the race-winning move with others then they’ve got to have the skills on the descent not to lose ground and finally the ability to win the sprint. Many contenders have come from the Tour de France and this should be good preparation but ideally a rider who used the race as a stepping stone rather than an end point.
Alejandro Valverde seems to be everyone’s prime pick. You can see why because when he targets a race he rarely misses. Still the open nature of the race means he’s far from a certainty and his biggest problem could be himself, he’s a cagey rider who can hold himself back rather than commit to a long range raid. There’s no “I” in team but there is in Spain and Valverde’s biggest problem has been teamwork when he’s lead Spain at the Worlds. This time though only Joaquim Rodriguez is a notional rival and aide but he’s not the force he used to be and the rest of the team are three Movistar stalwarts with Tour stage winner Ion Izagirre an outsider who could jump while the big names mark each other.
Wherever Valverde goes Julian Alaphilippe has been seen banging his handlebars in frustration behind. The Frenchman has been thwarted in the Ardennes and now aims for gold after a promising Tour de France. He can climb and he sprints fast but he’s also 24 and prone to wasting energy at times. French team mate Romain Bardet is an outsider with Alexis Vuillermoz on team duty and Warren Barguil’s been ill.
Who to pick from the Colombian team? Jarlinson Pantano was a darling of the Tour de France and if he’s started winning this year this is on another scale to his stage-poacher routine. Still he sprints well and can exploit the descents. Rigoberto Urán took silver in London last time with a clumsy sprint so bad some thought he sold the result so here’s the chance to make amends, seen as a stage racer he’s been adept on one day events too but the form is unknown. Esteban Chaves should be good on the climbs but gold seems unlikely even if he sprints ok from a small group while Miguel Angel Lopez is a punchier prospect but both of these two are aiming for the Vuelta more than Saturday.
Vincenzo Nibali‘s had two goals this season, the Giro and this. His home tour practically fell into his lap, he used the Tour to for training and notional team duties although this didn’t mean much work. Here’s a course to suit although that flat final run to the line complicates things, when he wins it’s almost always solo, all or nothing. Fabio Aru hasn’t show much this year but even if he comes good on the climb it’s hard to see how he wins outright while Alessandro De Marchi is a breakaway specialist.
Bauke Mollema‘s win in the Clasica San Sebastian showed us what he can do and he’ll be marked now, his problem is that unlike last Saturday the finish is much further away from the final climb making it harder for him to clip away. If caught his sprint isn’t as convincing as his climbing but he’s a pick because of his go-getting attitude, he’ll attack when others mark each other. Similar story for Wout Poels who is worth watching.
Among the Belgians Philippe Gilbert is the prototype pick if he can hang on with the climbing, he can as his wins in Lombardia show and he’s got a bankable sprint if he comes in with a group of 10-20 riders, like many his form is a mystery and he’s not the rider he used to be but he knows a thing or two about winning his target races. Tim Wellens who is tipped on the basis of one ride in the Tour of Poland where he demolished the field on a mountain stage (NB: Tatra not Alps) in a downpour and came in minutes ahead of the rest but remains a lively rider rather than steady pick. Greg Van Avermaet is a pick for the sprint and he can cope well with short climbs but who’d want to take him to the finish? The climbers will want to eliminate him… Gilbert too.
Irish cousins Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche are worth watching, Dan Martin especially as he sprints fast and has the knack of sniping one huge day wins like the Tour of Lombardy and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Michał Kwiatkowski can win hilly one day races but little is known about his form. He was last seen going backwards on the Jaizkibel which doesn’t bode well but was he using it as a training race? Apparently not, the latest is that he says he’ll work for Rafał Majka but of the two Kwiatkowski is far better for the sprint, it’s hard to see Majka soloing away or outsprinting rivals for a medal.
The bookmakers have Chris Froome as the third pick. Only he’s never won a one day race. He could well feature on the climb and if he descends well, he’s no daredevil, the course here is very different to the Peyresourde. It’s hard to see him slipping away this time and then holding off the chase; harder still to see him winning from a sprint. Instead Adam Yates seems a better bet, Steven Cummings (pictured) is a possible pick, famous for his solo breakaways he packs a good sprint too and Geraint Thomas brings more options to the British team.
Ritchie Porte is like Froome, a stage racer rather than a one day winner but he took could use the climb and try to go into time trial mode and perhaps come in with a group of fellow stage racers and hope for the best. Simon Clarke is likely on team duty but is a former mountains prize winner in the Vuelta and if he’s back to his lighest he can still sprint.
Edvald Boasson Hagen is the dark horse pick because of his sprinting and because on a good day he can do the climbs. He’s been hit and miss on the hills this year but in the past he’s demolished the field to take Alpine stages in the Tour de France and Dauphiné.
Finally a few more names to rattle through. Rui Costa is strong and suited to a course like this but as ever he can be strong but just doesn’t win that often. Zdeněk Štybar will like the cobbles but he can climb well on a good day as seen in the Ardennes or his top-10 on San Sebastian in 2014 and his race craft could let him sneak the win in the finish. A sprint from a small group? Michael Albasini seems to pop up for the win on hilly races. South Africa have two riders but Daryl Impey and Louis Meintjes can play the old 1-2 with Meintjes going on the climb and Impey waiting for the sprint. Will Andrey Amador ride for Costa Rica or Movistar? There’s the enigmatic Rein Taaramäe, a rare winner but once he goes up the road he’s hard to catch. The final pick is mystery man Simon Špilak.
|Adam Yates, Julian Alaphilippe, Dan Martin, Jarlinson Pantano|
|Vincenzo Nibali, Philippe Gilbert, Rigoberto Urán, Bauke Mollema, Rui Costa|
|Thomas, Boasson Hagen, Izagirre, Chaves, Bardet, Impey, Albasini, Štybar, GVA, Kwiatkowski, Clarke|
Weather: hot and sunny with a top temperature of 32°C and only a slight offshore breeze.
TV: the race is on Saturday from 9.30am to 3.10pm Rio time, that’s 7.10pm for British readers, 8.10pm Euro time, 2.10pm EDT in the US and 4.10am for Australians in Sydney. It’s live from start to finish but up to your home broadcaster to show it, if it’s not on TV then check online as it should be streamed.
Photo credit of Rio from the Vista Chinesa, the high point of the road race circuit, by Flickr’s Joao Guilherme Soares Dias