Olympic Road Race: The Moment The Race Was Won

On the back of the Box Hill circuit there was a descent followed by a steep rise that turned into a drag. It’s the kind of road you approach with plenty of momentum from the descent but then it climbs up too much to carry speed, instead riders had to balance momentum with power.

That’s just what happened today, we saw a clever move launched by Olga Zabelinskaya, blasting past Amber Neben and Emma Pooley and the Russian was joined by Lizzie Armitstead, Shelley Olds and Marianne Vos. The four got away and this was the winning move.

The race started with rain and as the riders rolled out of London it was one of the Fernandes sisters of Brazil who attacked but the move didn’t last long. Caught, the bunch started to roll together and TV commentators and Twitter alike started to jeer and comments about the race being boring appeared. Little did they know.

The race was still in the London suburbs when Ellen Van Dijk of the Netherlands launched the first of several attacks. Apply foresight or hindsight and these were obvious moves to soften up the field for the team’s leader, Vos. But did it work? Well the race went up the climb of Staple Lane with the riders spread wide over the road, things looked calm yet on the descent it was Vos who got a gap and then attacked hard once on the main road road. It woke up the bunch who chased.

On to Box Hill and the hostilities picked up. Britain’s Emma Pooley was especially active, she is a climber and likes riding away so no wonder but she was marked, often by Vos. The first lap of Box Hill ended without too much of a change, the bunch had shrunk and defending Olympic champion Nicole Cooke was struggling. On the second time up Box Hill things stayed quiet again until Vos attacked, a giant move with a powerful acceleration and energy that lasted for some time. But first Armitstead got across and then so did others and the move was shut down.

Round back of the circuit and Pooley went clear with Neben but they had a slender lead and it was on the crest of the hill – the same spot used in the mens race by many riders to slip the British stranglehold – that Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya jumped, and was soon joined by Vos, Olds and Armitstead. The four got a gap and quickly turned into a meaningful escape although the lead reached 20 seconds, 22 seconds and slowly crept up. The four started working together better and behind the bunch was led by Italy and Germany but like with the men’s race, the chase did not see rider after rider committing to the chase, instead a few riders were deployed to do long, tiring turns.

Disaster struck for Shelley Olds when she punctured. A good sprinter she had a strong chance of winning the race outright and certainly I would have wagered more than a one-in-four chance on a medal. But all she ended up with was a spare wheel from the neutral service vehicle.

The four begin to reach suburban London and the gap was forty seconds, hardly a comfortable margin but the lead trio were assured of a medal if they co-operated and they were working together flawlessly until the final few kilometres. With two kilometres to go, Vos didn’t come through, forcing Zabelinskaya to keep going and Armitstead sat tight on Vos’s wheel.

The same position was there in the final straight. Zabelinskaya went but was soon past by Vos with Armitstead on her wheel. But if the Briton was in the right place, she was on the wrong wheel. Vos is the world’s best female road rider and has had an exceptional season. Outside Buckingham Palace Marianne Vos was crowned queen of cycle sport and fittingly Elizabeth was the second.

  • Despite apologies and promises to improve things for Sunday the race was still badly handled by the TV production crew. We got time checks but the graphics only appeared from time to time. Instead I was timing the gaps myself and when the TV captions they were sometimes were wrong. There was still no permanent countdown of the distance remaining and worse, the heavy rain fogged up the camera lenses, as if the broadcast was sponsored by Instagram. Yet this only added to the tension and uncertainty and the last hour provided great suspense and even if the best rider in the world was the winner, the result was never certain until 20 metres to go.
  • Why was this so bad? The broadcasters are blaming Twitter but if the cellular network caused problems with the static time check poijnt at the top of Box Hill, this doesn’t explain everything. None of the TV commentators got a feed of the race radio, often called “radio tour”. The race convoy had accurate time checks meaning officials and team cars were aware of everything but the TV commentators were not. This was compounded by the production decision not to clutter the TV screen with vital information like the distance remaining and a permanent on-screen graphic with the time gaps leaving people confused. And to make matters worse, one of the TV relay planes used to beam the signals developed electrical problems and had make an emergency crash landing causing a late minute worry for the broadcasters.

30 thoughts on “Olympic Road Race: The Moment The Race Was Won”

  1. Great write-up, as always. I enjoyed today’s race far more than yesterday’s. All the attacking back and forth (the Dutch, Emma Pooley, the Dutch try again, Kristen Armstrong,…) made for very exciting viewing.

    • Oh, and to see Lizzie get silver was great too. I’ve been following her career since the days of the Cervelo Test Team, and have been a great fan of hers since.

  2. A fantastic race and much better than the mens race with far more attacking riding. This came from the shorter course meaning the riders were less tired and there was more to play for, perhaps a 200+km race doesn’t make for a better race? But then we knew that from the experiments of the Tour.

    A great showcase for womens cycling.

    • Funny, Sean Kelly suggest that 120kms races would be better for all during the tour de france commentary on eurosport. after today race I think he (& you are spot on)

    • I can’t recall if it was the Giro or the Vuelta that made their transfer stages shorter a few years back, but the racing was a TON more agressive and therefore more interesting.

    • I wonder, however, if it would have made for a more boring men’s race, given Sky’s, errr, Team GB’s desire for a sprint finish? I assume they’d be strong enough to pin it for 120-150km and still give Cav the perfect lead-out.

      I don’t too much about the women’s field, but was there a sprinter (with a decent team) comparable to Cavendish?

      As for the child comment regarding Kelly’s suggestion for 120km stages in the Tour–I like it, assuming there would be a minimum of sprinters’ stages and more “lumpy” stages that would allow riders like Chavenal and Gilbert and Voight (among others) to really ignite the race.

      • Bronzini (from Italy) has outsprinted Vos at the last two world championships.

        But Vos is a freak – she can sprint with the best, she can climb with the best, she’s the world cyclocross champion, she’s won the past two women’s Giros. She dominates the women’s field in a way that hasn’t been seen in the men’s peloton since Merckx.

        • Funny thought – everyone is always looking for “the next Eddie Merckx” and it turns out “he” is a woman from The Netherlands.

    • Yep: miserable conditions, but these three toughed it out and got their reward.
      My wife did have a chuckle at how ‘immaculate’ Armitstead looked during the immediate post-race mixed zone interview.

  3. Despite all the production issues, and a commercial laden NBC broadcast (although they nixed the ads towards the end AND I got to see it live), I thoroughly enjoyed taking in my first women’s cycling race. Your posts and tweets helped greatly. Thanks.

  4. The irony of all the complants about the poor tv production, not having time checks, how far to go etc is these same people are the ones who moan about the pro’s having race radios…ladies race was great, hope the UCI take note and try and help this side of the sport get the recognition it deserved.

    • Really? I don’t think the two things are related at all. While I want to be entertained by an exciting race, it’s nice to have some graphic information, especially when the commentators are rather lame and/or hampered by lack of information themselves. But just as I don’t want the bike race to take full evolution and become a motorcycle race, the race radios do NOTHING to make the race more entertaining or competitive. Certainly the smaller sized teams contributed to a more exciting race as things are more difficult to control but I believe the “fog of war” makes the racing more interesting for the spectator and more challenging for the competitors. I don’t see how that’s bad – unless you’re a DS with riders who lack tactical smarts and perform mostly by remote/radio control.

  5. It was a great race, and it was great to see the crowds turn out in the same numbers they did for the men’s race. Unfortunately, I had to turn to the internet after the race to find out what happened to Shelley Olds in the break. One moment there are 4 riders, and then after a commercial break, there are 3. We never saw what exactly happened to her, and the announcers only made occasional vague references to “mechanical problems” or “being dropped” without ever saying what happened, probably because they didn’t know. Another great race that could have been better with better TV production.

  6. I watched the race from on The Mall. A great race with an exciting finish. Thanks for your Twitter feed which helped keep me informed during the race. Hopefully a great boost for women’s cycling, something the UCI needs to work on developing. SKY Women’s team must be under consideration?

  7. It seemed that there was a lack of cameras being used to cover this event. IN addition to the lack of time checks, graphics etc…, it seemed that they were either missing sufficient cameras to cover the event, or they production staff failed to provide what would have been really helpful…split screen coverage. The one thing missing from the race coverage was enough coverage of the peloton chasing the three in the break. We never got a sense as to why the Americans, Germans and Aussies were not putting together a more concerted effort to chase down the three in the front. All we occasionally got was the occasional lookback when a single rider would try some failed attack.

    And if I, who watches this sport all year-round was a little confused as to what was going on in the pack, imagine how a non-cycling fan watching what may have been one of the few races they will ever watch felt?

  8. A great write up for what seemed a sensational, attacking race. The Australian broadcaster saw fit to entertain us with swimming heats and synchronised diving instead of the road race, until they deemed us worthy enough for a delayed coverage of the final 6km.

    Awesome win by Vos, such elegant strength!

    Pity the host broadcasters made such a botch of the coverage two days in a row. If they didn’t have access to the time checks from radio tour, perhaps they could have manually updated a permanent on-screen graphic with details gleaned from twitter….muppets.

  9. I don’t know who are exactly to blame -probably a combination of the wrong people at the job, certain rules and technical failure- , but it’s a missed chance and, worse, it didn’t show any respect to the public, reporters and still less to the cyclists.
    With all that in mind, I saw a great race won by Marianne Vos. Heepheephooray!!!!!

  10. Rats. Injured my rib cage/muscles yesterday and couldn’t even get out of bed to watch the women’s race this morning. This afternoon, I was able to drag myself to my computer and watch some highlights of the last three kilometers. And what a race I missed!

    No surprise that Vos was “crowned queen,” but kudos to Armistead for laying it all on the line against Vos and winning GB’s first medal of the Games. Congrats also to Olga Zabelinskaya for cranking it out at the front and making the final sprint easier for Vos and Armistead.

    Tactics, talent and experience usually win out. Sorry I missed a thriller in the rain, but thank God for post-race videos (with no commercials)!

    Check out some great photos of the finish of the race:


  11. It was great to see Vos win the gold. She has been second at the World Champs for so many years in a row I was scared she would come second again. Why scared? Imagine the hurt a cranky Vos would put the peloton through for the rest of the season!?

  12. A few comments.
    1. I get kind of frustrated by all the talk about how terrible the coverage was. Now, I’m not saying the coverage was necessarily stellar, but, its not like there is a ton of women’s cycling on TV, and on the main NBC broadcast to boot. It reminds me of people complaining about Roubaix etc. this year. Yeah the race coverage was lack luster, but it upsets me that people complain over and over about the lack of coverage, and then complain about the coverage when they get it. Yes they have valid points, but beggars can’t be choosers.

    2. After the men’s race there was all kinds of complaints about team GB’s tactics, and people like Cadel and Levi are always accused of wheel sucking. Yet, no one says a word about Lizzie not taking a turn at the front for the final 2 K (at least) of the race. Again, I’m not trying to disrespect, Lizzie raced an awesome race and besides Vos and Evie she or Emma would be favorite to win, I just find it odd that the women’s race doesn’t get the same scrutiny as the men’s.

    • point 2 – come on man….by that point it was all tactics to try and set up the sprint and not be caught on the front like Uran the day before – all 3, including the Russian, pulled their weight in the run in and not a single one of them can be accused of wheel sucking.

      The reason why no one is complaining about the tactics is because they were just about perfect for the medalists – Pooley and Van Dyke spend all day softening up the field and then their two team mates take the first two medals. What’s to complain about? The only complaint I’d have about tactics is that the chase, having watched on Saturday (one can assume) should have known that hauling them back wasn’t going to be easy and as Boardman was saying on BBC should have taken shorter faster turns on the front rather than just Arndt sitting on the front “diesel-ing” for a kilometre and peeling off with no italian set up to pedal through. 10 second pulls with 4 or 5 riders on a rotation may have brought it back.

      • I guess I’m not really upset about it, poor word choice, I just find it interesting how over analyzed the men’s race is. If Cadel did something like that? And let us not forget, the slight controversey over Canc and Sagan/Gerrans. I just find the differences in public reaction funny.

        • You’re right that perhaps it was a little less “over” analysed. Maybe that’s it – we all just talk too much s%$t about the men’s races usually. I think a lot comes from the fact that we have our favourites in the men’s so all of Canc’s fan club end up getting up in arms over perceived slights, wheel sucking, soft peddling etc. If that was a women’s race not many would have had pre-conceptions and so they would have just said “Fair play Simone Gerrans – Fabiana Cancellara was stupid to work so hard”

          In general on forums and discussing with mates and family the consensus is overwhelmingly that this was the best race many have seen in ages, so that’s gotta be good. Best race for me since the women’s worlds of ’08.

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed both races despite the bare minimum of race information but intrigued that in both races a large peloton were held at roughly the same time gap (& final time) despite the final break forming at around 50/60 kms to go. Coincidence, or was it the nature of the run-in with smallish, winding roads, &/or having extremely strong riders out front? I’m aware of Cav winning the test event so I presume a break was chased down back then but it was fascinating that we had such similar scenarios play out.

    • interesting thing about the test event was that there was, as well as a British team, an “English” team and a couple of domestic trade teams that all contributed to the chase…..rather than just Cav’s four other riders. It left a slightly sour taste in my mouth at the time (and Charlie Wegelius’s I suspect) but in retrospect I wonder if GB missed an opportunity to see if 4 men could control the break on that circuit….perhaps if they tried and failed they may have thrown a Blythe or Swift in the team and in the break.

      It’s a great thing about 1 day races like the Olympics and Worlds – no one really knows how the circuit will play out…..if we end up with a race on this course every year I’d say by 3 or 4 years time we’d need to add a Poggio or Cipressa (There isn’t one! – Richmond Hill perhaps?) to liven it up as the race will have become formulaic but for a 1 day race we spend the 12 months before discussing passionately whether it will come back for a sprint or not. No surprises really that in the “Pro” era of Olympic road races there has never been a bunch sprint.

    • Not if you watched it on RAI. Coverage was amazing and could be watched even on an iPhone globally for free (not geo-restricted).

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