The Moment The Olympics Were Won

Anna van der Breggen Rio 2016

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.

Annemiek van Vleuten Rio

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.

The Verdict
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.

87 thoughts on “The Moment The Olympics Were Won”

  1. A cracking race and a write up to do them justice.
    If people want to talk of ‘old skool’ racing then, whilst this course helped to produce one dimension of that, the other was the riders themselves.
    Very few millionaires in that peloton, I would guess.
    But the pursuit for glory was no less thrilling and, as Inrng said, the injuries hurt no less.

    ps I must mention Lizzie Armistead. The rights and wrongs have been debated at length but at least she has toughed it out and did her best. She can’t have slept much at all, but she deserves credit for her performance.

    • Very few millionaires in that peloton,

      Remember, the UCI has no minimum wage requirement for International Elite Women. As such, you have a system now where “getting paid” means travel reimbursement for many, and that’s it. BTW, I have no idea who is/isn’t getting paid.

      It’s a horrible state of affairs for such a talented group of athletes that put on a great race.

  2. I posted this on the other article, but was disappointed with Chris Boardman outlining his anger at the course designers for making such a dangerous and treacherous course. Yes the descent was technical but it is in the hands of the rider, van Vleuten took far too much speed into that corner and over cooked it. Breaking heavily, locking her wheels up and then hitting ground head first. Awful crash and I feared the worst. Happy to hear she is on the mend and conscious.

    You take risks on descents like that trying to do them at speed and it is one of the reasons I descend so gingerly on twisting descents like that, obviously I’m not a pro athlete but with a family to think about I don’t gamble or take unnecessary risks. With a gold medal at stake I suppose you push the envelope a bit more than you would normally.

    Really felt for Abbot, was willing her to the finish line but knew deep down she’d be caught. She gave it everything in that final run in and her efforts earlier simply caught up with her and just heart breaking to not even get a medal.

    Coverage was once again marred by inaccurate time gaps and not giving key information but still a fantastic race just like the mens. On a side note, probably best that Lizzie Armistad didn’t podium given recent events, seems she’s been put through the wringer emotionally which wouldn’t have helped her final preparations.

    • I didn’t Boardman’s concern was that the course was dangerous because the likelihood of crashing was particularly high; rather that it was dangerous because the consequences of crashing were particularly high. The particular road furniture off the course (deep tropical drainage gullies, then hard concrete kerbs) meant that if a rider crashed the consequence were likely worse than if she crashed on other roads, which had more forgiving edges. I thought that a fair criticism.

      • Precisely this, Nick. The consequences of an accident were greater than perhaps usual elsewhere. We have Porte with a broken shoulder, Henao with a fractured pelvis, and Nibali has fractured both collarbones, and now van Vleuten – all of these caused by road furniture (in Porte’s case, a 6 inch post used to support catch fencing, almost like hitting a telegraph pole).

        Strangely, in terms of course safety it all reminded me of this:
        Petter Solberg hit a hinkelstein tank trap in WRC Germany at high speed. Immensely lucky to escape.

    • I think we can extend Chris Boardman some sympathy on this issue — it’s less than a month since his mother Carol was killed when she was hit by a truck while cycling.

  3. I know that the course was excellent but, in the context of the billions spent on lavish stadia and hotels for the high and mighty, they could have spent a few tens of thousands to get rid of that ditch and put in proper drainage and a safe surface.
    That fall-away drain was shocking, on that narrow descent and under the gloomy canopy with sudden bright sunlight flashes.

    I’m not buying this ‘riders should descend carefully’ theme – they’re in an Olympic race for goodness sake!

    The course was selected long back and, as I said, in the context of the money lavished elsewhere, it was lacking. Totally agree with Chris Boardman on that.

    • I too think that Boardman was right. No other Olympic sport would consider it “part of the game” that four leading competitors end up with broken or fractured bones. On a course that difficult, much more effort should have been made to minimise the consequences of rider error. I think that most (if not all) of the crashes happened at just two key spots.

      • Indeed. There is no – “by the way, the entry to the diving pool water is only a circle 6ft wide in a concrete slab, just take it easy with your dives”

        • I’m not sure what we could expect them to do – other than pick a different route with no climbs. There is a lot of comments about money spent elsewhere… but that is on flagship stadia, housing, infrastructure… all with a lasting benefit. Are we expecting them to fill 100km of drainage ditches on the road for a weekend and then presumably put them back when the peleton moves out of town next week?

          The roads had been long known and deemed safe (or at least acceptable) and there were no pre-race complaints from the riders who had all been given plenty of time to recon the course.

          Cycling is an extreme sport… the less than optimal conditions that cyclists face is as much a part of the sport as the bikes they ride on.

          • It does not take a genius to work out that in all probability the decisive “moves” of both races would be attempted on that final descent. Therefore, the inclusion of plastic covered straw bales (for example) on which co cover the kerbs on the opposite apexes would not have cost much. Nobody said 100km needed lining, and not saying that drainage ditches needed sealing up.

          • They should, as someone pointed out all ready, at least put hay bales on the critical points. The token foam clad telephone poles were not enough.

          • No, not 100km of it, just the risky 2 or 3 km section (or was it longer?) eg there were crash barriers on the U bend near the look out point (is this the actual Vista Chinesa?), ie were Porte crashed into it, so could they have put some additional crash barriers along the sections where the road was at its steepest or after a slight bend? The crash would still have happened, and still potentially a broken collar bone due to the high speed, but better to go into some from of crash barrier first rather than head first into concrete drainage?

            Although I take the point about pre race complaints, and we need to be careful not to castigate too much with hindsight, but maybe use this as a lesson for the future. The course in general was clearly a cracker due to the racing we witnessed.

          • all with a lasting benefit.

            This is not true. Recently, most Olympic venues end up abandoned for lack of revenue/interest in keeping them open.

          • As quite a few countries have found – e.g. China (empty, useless stadia), Greece (debt) – the Olympics rarely have a lasting benefit. The cost to Brazil will be very high.

    • Always easy to criticize from the couch. It takes a huge effort to setup a course many miles long, and to expect them to foresee every possible crash angle is a bit rich (van Vleuten crashed without hitting anything; it looks like if she had not grabbed the front brake so hard she would have bounced off netting). Maybe the organizers don’t have the depth of your professional experience accessible to them.
      More riders crash in the spring classics every year (often with equivalent/worse injuries).
      Why do so many people feel the need to criticize / condemn others? Great courses with great racing and unscripted drama. Couldn’t ask for more (maybe to have Abbot in the medal mix…)

      Great roundup as always Inrng

    • How comes that the social media is full of complaints and course safety and road building experts theses days?

      Interestingly you couldn’t find a single male or female rider who had complaints about the course. Not even the usual whiners like Cancellara or Tony Martin said a word. So why has everyone in an armchair on tv better view and clue about the roads in Rio than those who ride the course?

  4. A great race marred by a stomach-turning crash (I thought the very worst). The race went to the wire and you had to feel for Abbott who was burying herself to get to the line, with the Majka deja-vu. I was surprised how strong she was on the flat, an obvious climber and having battled with anorexia, I’d expected them to reel her in quickly but then it looked like she might just hang on. She looked devastated at the finish but was classy in the interviews. And a mixed day for van der Breggen, possibly the crowning day of her career and all she can do is worry about the welfare of a team mate rather than celebrate.

    I agree it wasn’t the descent itself but the lack of safe “run off” that made it dangerous. There’s little point having a catch net when you have to get through concrete first, and whilst crashes are part of racing the injuries sustained were all serious (Nibali both collar bones, Henao his pelvis, Porte his scapula and van Vleuten 3 spinal fractures)

  5. I was going to complain a few days ago about the lack of a preview to the women’s race – then remembered that this is a free blog and the comments in the past that this blog focuses on men’s road racing, and other blogs do women’s racing justice. Nevertheless I am really please to see this excellent write up especially having watched the denoument to such an exciting race.

    A couple of comments – I agree that Van Vleuten would almost certainly have won given how close to the finish line Abbott was, so (hopefully after a full recovery) the crash may be even more difficult to take. I agree with Boardman that the consequences of crashing was too much for a cycling race.

    2nd thought is to echo the comments about Vos. It’s one of the main things I like about cycling, which is the apparent lack of egos in the top riders. Another good example is Cavendish happily being a water carrier on the days that he won’t win (not the very high mountains mind….) to support teammates.

      • Do we have proof that this is a one-person blog? I’m wary that one person could produce such varied excellence – or maybe it’s not a person?

        (Note – I said I was going to complain, but remembered what this blog is, and what it chooses not to cover, as others cover female cycling. I was merely trying to note how pleasantly surprised I was to see the write up, and such an excellent piece as well)

    • I don’t agree that Van Vleuten was in winning position. She moved away from Abbott by taking more risk than she could handle.
      I hope she can see it that way too, it was not a crash that kept her from gold, it was a crash in a race that could have gone many ways without it.
      I saw the replay after I heard she was ok and still felt sick when I saw her, especially how she lay there like a dropped puppet. So happy she is relatively all right.

      • Abbott simply can’t descend, there was no need to take any huge risk to get away from her, and obviously no subsequent problem in keeping the distance on the flat.
        At the same time, the chasing group would have had no chance of reaching AVV (not only she would have been further up and faster than Abbott, but the chase itself would have been way more difficult knowing that there wouldn’t have been medals for everyone).
        AVV made a tactical mistake, taking more risk than needed, and, for sure, she also suffered from a bit of bad luck: however, I can’t imagine any scenario in which she wouldn’t have got that gold in case she didn’t fall. Not even descending quite much slower and more safely than she actually did: she would have left back Abbott anyway.
        Note that I’m an Abbott fan since I watched her from the roadside when she was winning the Giro Rosa on the Stelvio, I hugely appreciate her – and her blog, too.
        But Van Vleuten’s position was going to grant a gold, no other “many ways” things could go without that. Perhaps Abbott might have got a silver medal (Longo Borghini not chasing hard, thus a different scenario for the chase), but nothing could affect AVV’s gold – besides some other sort of accident, obviously.

        • “the chase itself would have been way more difficult knowing that there wouldn’t have been medals for everyone”

          That is a very insightful observation. Nuggets like these keep me scanning the comments section.

  6. The descent was not better or worse than any other races the girls are doing all year long. So nothing to complain about. This was echoed by several riders after the race in the interviews.

    From a race perspective, I think a special price for “race intelligence” should go to Elisa Longo Borghini. She pulled much more on the flat than the other two riders of her group, probably because she knew that her only chance of a medal was to catch Abbott. Johannson and van der Breggen (who were with her) would likely better her in the sprint anyways and there were only two medals left at that point.. Very smart to have this kind of thinking in the turmoil of an Olympic final.

  7. Thanks for the write-up for this INRNG, another fascinating race, and rare/treasured coverage from yourself of the female side to the sport.

  8. I am absolutely with you that Abbott would never have won if AvV hadn’t crashed. The only reason Annemiek van Vleuten wasn’t down to race the ITT was because Van Dijk and Van der Breggen are exceptional – former ITT World Champ and silver medalist in 2015 respectively. It’s the usual Olympic issue the Dutch face, that their 5-8th best road riders, and 3rd best ITTer is better than most countries’ A riders. So AvV would have gained more time on the descent, then solo-ed home – possibly with AvdB winning silver.

    That AvdB group worked so well together – Elisa Longo Borghini is an outside chance for a medal on Weds, and Emma Johansson strong, and clever as hell. As you say, I couldn’t enjoy that race until I knew AvV was OK – and I really felt for AvdB, so subdued at the finish, rather than getting to enjoy that best moment of her life.

    • Agreed. On the final climb as mountain-goat Abbott failed to distance AvV, I said to myself, “she won’t get any medal today” due to her poor descending skills, something mentioned elsewhere as the cause of her losing the women’s Giro this year. It was always likely the chasers would run Abbott down as she failed to preserve enough of the gap she gained going up.
      I’m constantly amazed at the emphasis put on watts/kgs in this sport while so little seems to be invested in having riders become skilled at operating their machines, especially going downhill, where the speed is FREE. BRAVI to the Rio organizers for having the guts to offer a challenging course!
      No risk, no reward.

      • This was a very intriguing and outstanding race!

        When I saw Abbott ripping up the climb, dropping her teammates in the process, I was wondering what the team plan was, knowing she is generally considered a poor descender. Sure she dropped all of the pre-race favorites, but then what? She isolated herself; it looked fairly clear that Stevens or Guarnier would not be coming back. Was she riding for herself? Did her teammates realize it wasn’t their day? Was she given free rein to exercise what she does best (climb) and hope for the best on the descent and long run in?

        And it was here that the importance of silver and bronze medals became apparent, and adds another dimension to tactics. Abbott’s chances of winning (and the USA’s chance of winning) the race was lost when she failed to drop AvV; hope only re-emerged with AvV crashing.

        Perhaps there were no other options; if Stevens and Guarnier were still there, so would Vos, Armistead, etc. But to me it was the case of an almost definitive loss, vs a probable silver medal, vs the crap shoot of what would happen if her teammates and other race favorites were still in contention. I wouldn’t want to risk a straight sprint with the Dutch, let alone with Armistead in the mix too.

        When she was alone out front, while I hoped Abbott would stay away, I feared she wouldn’t. It was interesting that no quarter was given to Abbott, by her Wiggle trade team teammates (Johannsen and Longo Borghini); with all the fear of collusion in men’s racing at Worlds & the Olympics, it was refreshing to see an all-out brawl to the finish and in the end not have a Wiggle rider on the top step of the podium.

        It was also great to see Flavia Oliveira put in an outstanding performance, with no team support, on a course that literally went past her home. She had to sacrifice a lot just to make Brasil’s team; it was nice to see her rewarded with being in contention and finishing 7th, while her teammate finished over the time limit.

  9. Nice to have a write up of a women’s race… INRNG is clearly knowledgeable on that side too.

    When it’s televised, women’s cycling often goes down well with fans. Small teams and short stages.

  10. agreed that there was high consequence for overcooking a corner or missing an apex. How, would the consequence differ than, say the the descents in the last kms of Lombardia? they’re stone walls, no?

    • At least the organisers had placed netting on the downhill side of the road. If Porte had gone off like that on the descent from the Stelvio or Agnello, they’d still be looking for him.

  11. What are the pros and cons of laying a fresh tarmac surface on a tricky and technical, potentially decisive, descent in a road race?

    • Cons? Fresh pavement is always dicey when it rains, especially just a little, as it did yesterday.
      Pros? Would you prefer cracks, potholes (filled perhaps, but still?) gravel and all kinds of bumps?
      Let’s face it, we don’t (yet) know how Nibali and Henao came to grief while Porte was reported to have hit a bump in the curve, despite riding down this descent at least once before. This was on a dry (though I guess it’s still rain-forest, so?) road while AvV came to grief by locking up her rear wheel, skidding, then clamping the front brake so hard she catapulted over the bars – all this in the wet…but how slippery was it when you can lock up your front wheel like that?
      How paternalistic do the organizers have to get? Of course riders are going to take risks on a technical descent leading to Olympic glory and all the straw bales, air fences, etc. in the world aren’t going to change this. In fact, just like MOTOGP, when the consequences of falling off are less, often the competitors take more risks…and crashing after hitting another rider laying in the road is going to affect the race and likely cause injuries no matter what. Just like everywhere else on the course, it’s up to the riders to determine what risks to take, whether it’s falling off on a descent or going so hard on a climb that you blow up. That’s RACING.

      • I expect that the oils coming out of the new surface in the hot temperatures would have been the issue with the men’s race, not moisture on a dry day in the dry season.

        This was a problem, if I recall correctly, at the first couple of race meetings held on the new layout at Silverstone circuit a few years ago. Weather compromised the construction timetable (unsurprisingly for the UK) and the circuit management pushed ahead with the planned meetings despite the surface not having cured yet. Compared to a purpose-built circuit or indeed the newly laid bitumen on the coast road part of the Grumari circuit, the Vista Chinesa road had the added problem of being shaded, meaning it could only cure on days with high ambient temperatures rather than quickly curing on the first few sunny days.

    • CONS:
      – Risk compensation. If that was a ‘normal’ road surface not freshly laid for the race (but not a ‘bad’ surface) then the riders would have treated it with more respect.
      – Oils coming up out of the surface in the heat if the surface was laid very recently.
      – Homogenous black appearance making it harder to view the camber in curves.
      – Ridges where lines have been painted before the surface has cured.

      – No defects, and better than doing selected patches.

      It should have been resurfaced about 6-8 months in advance to avoid most of those issues, allowing it to cure properly.

      • Vista Chinesa has been resurfaced over an year ago. There are pratically no holes and vey few really minor bumps. It is in pristine conditions. In fact, you could descend it today on moonlight alone at slow speeds (say, 30km/h), with a full moon (and I am not saying that from the couch).

        No one was complaining before the race. Van Avermaet himself said that the problem was not that the descent was dangerous, but that riders were overdoing it on the final descent.

        There was no room for error, but that is often the case in cycling. As it has been well put, Porte’s crash in some alpine descents would result in far more tragical result than a broken shoulder.

        In hindsight, some hay at some curves coukd have been helpful, but as I said before, nobody voiced that concern before.

        As far as I know there were no crashes last year when they’ve tested the course, in the race that ended with Viullhermoz as the winner. The riders and the UCI knew the course well in advance and it was deemed safe enough.

        • Thanks for the local insight.

          It certainly looked much fresher than a year to me. With the amount of shade, it could still be weeping oils on hot days.

          There’s a well-shaded road not far from me in the Adelaide Hills which was resurfaced last spring, but was still weeping oils on hot days during autumn this year even after summer had a lengthy run of days over 40°C.

          I agree about hay or airbags in the gutters. But that could be hard to predict, as nobody would have raced the test event anywhere near as hard as the actual Olympic Road Race.

          • Even the portable plastic barriers could have been placed in the gutters, if they only had a reasonably small amount of sand/water in the bottom to keep them anchored in the wind they would do quite a good job of absorbing some energy in a collision.

          • You’re welcome.

            But you are correct. The road is covered with oil, but not because it is brand new. The jeeps that take tourist to the Vista Chinesa Belvedere shed tons of it, daily. It gets really slippery when you get some days without rain and them just a little bit of it to bring it up (like Sunday).

            Another problem is that is not an engineered road. It was opened in the 1800’s, by Chinese farmers in order to grow coffee (there was nolonger any forest, as it was just a vast coffee plantation; it was reforested from 1862 to 1875, by Major Archer). So there are some off camber curves, like that last one, where Geraint and Van Vleuten crashed.

            I am a actually much more frightened by alpine descents. Maybe the pros just risked a little bit too much, knowing that they wouldn’t die outright in case of a bad crash. The leaders also had to risk a bit, in order to open a gap wide enough to survive the flat 10k to the finish line. And they were probably a tad crosseyed.

            Talking about the men, all of them seemed really knackered when they crested the end of Canoas, on the third lap.

            PS: Just to clarify, I am a lousy descender. By no means I think that it is a safe descent. It is dangerous, like any technical descent. Katarzyna Niewiadoma passed by me on Friday like I was standing still, just before the last curve. I’ve never seen anyone or anything that fast on that downhill (but I haven’t seen the men going down it).

            PS2: Canoas and Grumari are as steep as the profiles posted here. I’ve never measured them, but they sure have over 20% segments. Short ones, of course, but brutal.

          • And that’s why there aren’t many crashes on the big descents in the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites are pretty rare, as the normal road surfaces (bike races are more regular, so they don’t get resurfaced every time) and lack of barriers leads to the riders treating the courses with more respect.

            Regarding your PS, it’s not so much ‘safe’ that matters as the only real option there is to replace the road race with a gold medal for riding on an ergo under close medical supervision. The question is whether it is ‘safe enough for racing’ and in my opinion the answer is yes, and a few riders overcooking it does not change that.

            Regarding your PS2, they certainly looked that steep on the TV coverage! All up, the roads around Rio made their way straight into my list of places that I’d love to ride a bike if I ever get the chance.

        • Thanks for the first-hand knowledge and report. It’s too easy to armchair “experts” to exclaim “that’s too dangerous” regarding all kinds of race courses. The infamous “Crostis Affair” comes to mind, but at least that one was BEFORE anyone raced over it rather than after-the-fact complaints as with Rio. Nobody’s holding a gun to anyone’s head (well maybe the Russians? Just kidding) to race anywhere and in the men’s case they had a couple of trips down the thing before the finale while the women had plenty of opportunity to watch the men’s race the previous day. It’s a well-worn cliche, but “Shut up and race!” comes to mind here. Nobody seemed to raise objections BEFORE the crashing started…or did those complaints never see the light-of-day?

          • Four competitors have ended up with breaks and fractures, which is the same as in the 21 days of this year’s Tour (with it’s much bigger field). I can’t imagine that any other sport will end up with this level of casualties at the Olympics. I can’t imagine that any other Olympic sport would consider this level of casualties to be acceptable. Cycling shouldn’t either.

          • Doug H – I don’t know about that, the Gymnasts maybe? They’ve had a severely broken leg, and a ruptured ACL (with an audible snap, apparently).

          • To be fair to him, Boardman did raise his concerns about the likely consequences of crashing on this descent when previewing the course on the BBC. And the racers seemed content, as you say. Nevertheless the fact that the startlist for the ITT now seems to be ‘anybody who’s still in one piece’ suggests to me that the UCI do have lessons to learn.

  12. I just wanted to add a point about the final sprint, when seen from overhead it did look like Johannsen was surprised to see van der Breggen come past and it took her a moment to start her sprint and follow. It felt like she could perhaps could have taken the gold with a little more awareness of the situation though I don’t mean to be critical after such an exciting ( and worrying) race.

    • I must say, when it became clear that ELB was going to bring the three chasers up to Abbot, my thought was: AvdB (sitting third in the group) will go long, Emma will tuck in and come past at the end, gold for Sweden. And she did go long… whether Emma muffed the sprint slightly or was just knackered, who knows. It was a hard race so could have been the latter.

      • Swedish TV had an interview, she said she was knackered and just didn’t have it in the end. Still seemed happy enough with silver though.

  13. Great racing once again, a few comments form the local perspective:

    1. First, +1 on Flavia Oliveira! If you think women’s cycling has no support, consider women’s cycling in Brazil. Her career was built all by herself, and reaching 7th, with the second group and 20s away from the winners is truly astonishing. Hopefully her qualities will be more recognized by the top teams.

    2.On the Vista Chinesa descent: Vista Chinesa is what we call the pagoda. After it, there’s around 1km of a mild descent and then maybe 3.5-4 km of the very technical curves. I guess you could have hay in some points, but that kind of drainage and kerbs are necessary for the sheer amount of water and plants around. In any case, the race is a collaboration between the organizers of the games and the UCI, so the comissaires probably concluded it wasn’t beyond reasonable (and I didn’t see any riders complain, and they can be very vocal, as in some years of the Giro). From what I see: hitting a kerb full-on would be terrible, but you’re most likely to just hit the woods when you go down – I guess that’s what happened to the guys. Would her situation be different if it had hay? Don’t think so, she hits the middle of the road and then stops at the gutter. In any case, she’s thankfully stable .

    3. Tarmac there is normally great, so I surely wasn’t filled with patches – maybe one or two areas with larger new surfaces, but I really don’t know. The humidity doesn’t make it slippery when it’s not raining. What sometimes is a factor are the the jackfruits that fall to the ground from those huge trees, but I doubt there would be anything with the vent going on.

    4. In spite of the accidents, happy that the races were exciting. Many non-cyclist friends were involved with the races an commenting on how amazing they were. That’s priceless, shedding a positive light on a sport that is just now growing in the country.

    If you’re ever in Rio, let me know! I’ll take you to judge the curves by yourself – trust me, going up is a lot worse than going down.

    • Fair points and a valuable insight.
      Other than re-engineering the road on that part of the descent, could the organisers have placed high-vis padded barriers in front of the kerb and the fall-away drainage channel?

    • Regarding your point 3 about the newly laid surface, on the day of the men’s race it was quite hot so there would have been oils seeping out of the fresh surface.

      After being newly laid (it looked to me like it was only a few weeks old) the surface of a well shaded road like that will take quite a while to cure as it can only absorb heat from the ambient temperature rather than also absorbing it from the sun. It should have been laid no later than 6 months beforehand.

  14. Great race. The women did themselves proud. As for the crash, well I don’t want to blame the victim but in this case I must. Yes it was a harrowing descent but in the lead up to the race few complaints/concerns were raised just the usual “its a technical descent”. After watching the replay multiple times one can only conclude that she took way too tight a line into the corner. There was no start on the left side of the road, cut the apex. She was right center going into the corner. The moment (chance for glory and more probably, fatigue) caused her to misjudge, loose focus, pick your favorite term. It isn’t as though they hadn’t been on the descent before. I feel for her. Don’t get me wrong. As a better climber than descender I would be the guy with a lead over the top only to lose the race because I’m chicken shit on a fast, technical descent. She certainly was letting it all hang out. Bravo. Tough racer.

    • The problem started all the way back in the long double apex left-hander, she had too much mid-corner speed and ran wide on the exit, too far out to the right to straighten up and brake for the next corner in time.

      If she had not grabbed a fistful of rear brake and fishtailed out of control, she could have pulled it up in time and negotiated the right-hander but with the loss of about five seconds compared to a rider who carried less mid-corner speed.

      Remember that Tour de France stage into Gap last year where Ruben Plaza held off Peter Sagan? Sagan had the same problem as AvV, too much mid-corner speed left him running out of room on the exits and it cost him the stage. Sagan is spectacular to watch on a descent, but you look at Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet if you want to see a cleaner and faster technique.

  15. Inrng – thank you for the most excellent write up on female side. The race was thrilling and makes the point why females should be much more equal in support.

    The accident was very unfortunate (for that point all of crashes).

    I can’t agree with the old school – crashes happen deal with it, view point. If so, the sport will get completely eliminated in the lawsuit happy countries (US). In contrast I believe the UCI has to evolve and put more an emphasis on safety. You can see the pressure that exists in other sports as they may things more safe.

    The 2015 Al Pais Vasco was an example of gross safety mismanagement. If the UCI commissars aren’t going to take safety seriously the more aggressive nature of these races is going to see more accidents. Once again time to shake up some of the old boys it seems.

    In this particular case – it seems it might have been reasonable to add hay bales in the most risky areas after seeing what happened to the men. This may have been in a different area? It is too easy to complain after the fact. I suspect that many bike races in Brazil are faced with the same Kerbs and drains, which thus means that the UCI has to decide are they allowed to race on similar roads with Kerbs. It seems the posters are divided some say yes and some say no. If the injured riders were from a nation like China or Iran would the opinions have been the same?

  16. “If so, the sport will get completely eliminated in the lawsuit happy countries (US). ” is hyperbolic to say the least. People can take licenses out and sign up to do a lot of dangerous things in the USA for fun and perhaps profit. We’re not talking about racing through flaming rings of fire here PAX, just sport in general. Issues of negligence or unknown risk are completely different and neither applies in this case. May it ever be so.

    • Well, the other perspective is:
      Without wolverine-like plaintiffs’ attorneys in this here world’s greatest whatever on earth, no one would ever get recompense for anything – insurance companies refuse to pay out claims, victims get blamed, pretty much every contract includes the clauses setting up the corporations for the kill via the ‘binding arbiter’…binding is a euphemism..
      So lawsuits are a meager attempt to tilt the playing field slightly less uphill against the victims…

      Not personally bitter – just observing the pattern…

      • VICTIMS? I fail to see any corporations victimizing anyone here, sorry. This was about people who willingly apply/sign up to get a license and partake in competitions that involve some personal risk. Nobody forced them to get a racing license, climb on the bike or go too fast down a technical descent. As I wrote in a previous post, how paternalistic do the organizers need to be? I was happy to see a course that rewarded something other than simply watts/kg.

      • well, you are correct re patterns, Bern. And some can do their usual ‘shouting at the moon’ act, but much of the world has become ever more litigious. Overboard in many cases, perhaps actually helpful in others. See how this plays out.

  17. I think that the men’s and women’s races show that a finish line approximately 10km from the bottom of a tough climb and decent give a great finish.
    If you re-ran the races 10 times I think you would get different results each time, maybe Majka gets on the drops and holds on, people don’t crash, Froome attacks earlier and bridges, the Vos/P-V-P group go earlier and hold their lead, Armistead group get back to the AvdB group (they were only 7secs at one point)? Some many potential results from only slight variations.

  18. This may have been dealt with before, apologies if so. But..can anyone explain why the sizes of the different national teams in the road race varies so much? Is it something to do with qualifying points, or just choice? Given that it has such an impact on the race, you might assume that team size would be uniform?

    Very grateful for an explanation, I cant find one elsewhere

    • Exactly, the quick answer is it’s based on qualifying points for the country as well as how many UCI points the individual riders get. It’s why a rider like Fabian Cancellara’s never had a full complement of teammates, regardless how many Monuments he won that year.

    • If you wanted a fuller explanation, it’s in the attached. But, yes, it’s to do with qualification points.

      As an aside, in Project Rainbow by Rod Ellingworth, he states that he used to email all riders on a regular basis to remind them what minimum positions they should achieve in certain races to ensure that they obtained the necessary points to qualify with a full quota of riders for the world road race – ie by being on top of it then you could ensure that you squeezed an additional rider.

  19. CA/Cilmeri, thanks a lot, much appreciated.I did wonder why a star rider like Cancellara seemed to be there on his jack jones!

    An odd state of affairs when you think about it, but it does make sense in as much as more successful nations get bigger teams. It could encourage more competitiveness in other races too I suppose, if riders are motivated to try and rack up points, as per Ellingworth’s example.

    On the negative side it just reinforces the dominance of some nations (usually the richer ones) over the others, rather than create a level playing field. It’s the same in all sports I know, and team size is just one factor amongst many, but it’s just so glaring, its strange that we dont hear more about it.

    Anyway, thanks again.

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