Anna van der Breggen wins the sprint by the Copacabana beach. A top pick for the race the manner of her win was unexpected as she and the other medal contenders had been dropped on the final climb to the Vista Chinesa only everything changed when her team mate Annamiek van Vleuten had a horror crash on the final descent, going from the race-winning move to an ambulance. This crash was the decisive moment of the race as van Vleuten was well ahead and could count on her time trialling abilities to take her to the line.
The race started on a windy day with clouds building above the Dois Irmãos mountains. Cycling fans can take pride that the race goes ahead when all sorts of other events in Rio were being postponed because of the wind.
Lotte Kopecky was the first to attack, the Belgian rider is a powerful rider on the track and flat and so the early part of the race alongside the beaches and with its cobbles offered her some suitable terrain. Only nobody else followed and she was by herself. Later German rider Romy Kasper set off and nobody joined her either, she ended up cassava hunting but it meant Germany did not have to assume the pace for now.
The Grumari circuit was lapped twice and moves began to form. Ellen Van Dijk, a prolific winner, was here on team duties and got involved in moves, the same for fellow sprinter Giorgia Bronzini. Emma Pooley was at work for Great Britain even while Lizzie Armitstead had a mechanical and Marianne Vos was visible too.
By the second climb of Grumari the already small field had been halved. One the pleasures of the Olympics is setting the diversity of the peloton with uncommon national jerseys not normally seen but this brings with it a corresponding diversity of ability and many were ejected by now. They’d “taken part” as Baron de Coubertin might have said but not for long. Down the Grumari descent and the field split briefly, Marianne Vos could be seen on a front a lot. Nervous? Too much too soon? No, she was playing domestique.
It was on the flat roads to the Vista Chinese circuit with 39km that a threatening move got away. Trixi Worrack (Germany) attacked and gradually more joined her: Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (France), Anisha Vekemans (Belgium), Marianne Vos (Netherlands), Elena Cecchini (Italy), Gracie Elvin (Australia) and Małgorzata Jasinska (Poland). They quickly built up a minute’s lead boosted by long pulls from Vekemans with Vos and Worrack also driving the move. It had a lot of good names on paper but that was their problem, their collective palmarès was better than their condition on the day. Worrack was returning from a crash in March that saw her lose a kidney, Vos still on a gradual comeback and France’s “PFP” has been suffering since the winter with recurring back/nerve condition that’s also blocked her racing and training and meant no significant results this year. USA led the chase with Kristin Armstrong but it looked like containment as the gap rose to a minute and 1m20s with 27km to go.
Still this seven hit the Vista Chinesa climb with 1m20s and this seemed like a solid margin, decisive even. Only once gravity go to work the form of some of the breakaway riders was quickly exposed and they lost a minute in the space of two kilometres as the US team led the bunch. As the gradient began to bite Mara Abbott got to work. The pace shredded what was left of the peloton with Lizzie Armitstead located at the back of the bunch and other outsiders like Rachel Neylan being dropped too. Seconds later Mara and what was left of the peloton had caught and passed the breakaway.
Every time Abbott stood on the pedals a rider seemed to be dropped and the others grimaced. A pure climber she had one card to play: her power to weight ratio. It was working well, others briefly took a turn or two but could do no more. With 20km to go Abbott stood again and Johannson was dropped to leave a quartet of Abbott, van der Breggen, van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini and they crested the Canoas part of the climb.
The final Vista Chinesa section arrived and van Vleuten was the surprise attacker and was joined by Abbott and they went over the top the climb together. Within seconds Abbott looked to have lost the race, she lost several bike lengths to van Vleuten on the first two bends of the descent and continued to descend cautiously, not using the full width of the road and taking a nervous line down the hill. All that work on the climb was being undone and we’d seen it before in the Giro Rosa. Still here was Abbott in a medal position. The TV motobike couldn’t get past for a while but when it manage surge past it caught van Vleuten just on a bend where the Dutchwoman seemed to get her line and braking wrong, locked up both wheels, the back wheel first and then the front and crashed. Instead of sliding out she went head first and appeared to put her head into the drainage channel and then her body pivoted over the top before collapsing like a sack. It looked so grave that suddenly the race seemed immaterial, a sideshow, a circus. The latest is that she’s got three broken vertebrae and is on the mend.
Abbott’s descent now had something of The Hare and The Tortoise parable as she rode past van Vleuten, the initial caution that looked to have lost her the race could now win it. There were shades of Rafał Majka from the other day, the lone climber trying to hold off the chase behind. Only Abbott looked more convincing as she grabbed the drops and adopted a lower tuck as she hit the flat final kilometres.
Behind the trio of van der Breggen, Johannsen and Longo Borghini were closing in. Three riders for two medals? This was the uneasy calculation at first sight but the scenario wasn’t this reductive. If the trio could cooperate and catch Abbott then they all stood a good chance of beating the American in the sprint, the odds really said three riders for three medals as long as they shared the load. This kept the chasing trio going and if that was the carrot, the stick was a chasing group at 15 seconds as they sped past the beaches.
With 3km to go Abbott’s suffering was visible as she kept shifting position, standing on the pedals on the flat road squeeze out more speed and her head looking down a lot. She looked beaten but the time gap was still there as the final kilometres passed and it looked doable with 1km to go. She had the finish line in sight only to be caught and passed with 250 metres to go. The trio seemed to launch their sprint at the same time and Van der Breggen got a lead and sped to the line with Johannson close behind, the Swede tried a late surge but could only close the gap.
Another exciting race. The six rider move on the flat roads to the final climb brought the race alive and meant the action started well before the Vista Chinesa. The shorter course with only one climb up to the Vista Chinesa might have seemed too little but it was plenty especially as less than 30 riders were actively in the race by the time they started this hard climb. Abbott was the strongest on the climb but the long run to the finish was ruinous to a lone climber trying to hold off a trio of proven rouleuses. It’s hard to imagine how crushing this must be for Abbott, for the men the Olympics are part valuable race, part curiosity but the Olympics are a cornerstone of the economics of the women’s peloton and to see this massive prize ahead only to get caught within metres is more than cruel twist of sport one afternoon.
Van Der Breggen was a top pick for the race and you could imagine her making a select group on the climb and then winning the sprint but this win was far inevitable and the manner unexpected. It was a result of her persistence and her team mates, whether Vos’s huge work or sadly the crash of van Vleuten. That fall ruined the party, in the men’s race the sight of Vincenzo Nibali and Sergio Henao crashing was significant but seeing them move, even in pain, was a sign they’d be ok and allowed the focus to return to the racing. Van Vleuten’s head first fall into the drain looked a lot more worrying and it was hard to concentrate on the time gaps in the absence of news about her health.
Was the descent too dangerous? It had been freshly surfaced and some rain was falling on Sunday but van Vleuten’s crash was her accident, a compound error of risk, speed, trajectory and braking. What followed though was not self-inflicted, the drainage channel and the kerb meant that an exit from the road came with a high price. It’s easy to type that the road should have been secured but how? Fill in all the ditches and to remove the kerb? Ideally yes but Brasil doesn’t have the money and if they did and it rained what chance everyone would be aquaplaning their way to hospital too.
Having won almost everything there’s a joy to see Marianne Vos as a loyal team mate, not because her cannibal role is repetitive but simply because she was assuming another role, an extra dimension. She’s done it before but at this level it was special to behold.
Could van Vleuten have won? Yes and most probably. If Abbott was caught in sight of the finish line then van Vleuten was already well ahead and if she’d matched Abbott’s speed then she’d have made it across the line first. Van Vleuten is an excellent time triallist so even with the climb in her legs she’d have had the power to stay away too so it all pointed to gold. Alas all this is speculation but aged 33 this crash might ache long after her injuries have healed.
The time trial is on Wednesday and the track events start on Thursday. There’s a schedule at Rio Olympics Cycling iCal.