Greg Van Avermaet crosses the finish line in Rio. The obvious winning moment and in the absence of many photos from the race the image is a good cue as it shows him well ahead of Jakob Fuglsang and Rafał Majka. The Belgian arrived with these two rivals and the result seemed inevitable given his sprinting ability, a rare moment of certainty in a wild and unpredictable race.
The actual winning moment came with 70km to go when Van Avermaet jumped on the Vista Chinesa climb along with Damiano Caruso and Geraint Thomas, a move that put him at the front of affairs.
The race began and opened like a tourist promotional video with azure seas and swank beaches packed with basking bathers, the video just needed a sweeping soundtrack, maybe some John Barry or Bossa Nova.
After 15km a move went clear with Michał Kwiatkowski, Jarlinson Pantano, Simon Geschke, Sven Bystøm, Michael Albasini and Pavel Kochetkov. Some strong riders rather than the usual fodder. In the days before Kwiatkowski had said he’d be working for Majka and this proved to be no bluff. They had eight minutes at one point.
Who is who?
It was harder to identify the riders in their national kit, a deductive matrix of determining nationality then looking for clues as to their trade team. Take Albasini above, not immediately obvious but you see the Scott bike with Shimano and can work out it’s him. Others had some custom kit, see Kwiatkowski on his Pinarello but with what look like Carbonsports Lightweight wheels while Chris Froome was on Enve wheels (built by Strada, the first ever sponsors on this site). Simon Geschke meanwhile was immediately visible and his beard is becoming a trademark, it brings him extra visibility.
Cobbles and Crosswinds
Along the beach rode the cobbles caused trouble for some. Several riders had mechanicals, some found their seatposts slipping, Greg Van Avermaet suffered a puncture, Porte jammed his chain and Bauke Mollema had all sorts of mechanical woes. The Czech team tried to exploit the crosswinds and cobbles. It was odd, the scenery too glam for the kind of racing we normally expect in De Panne. Instead of making the break Stephen Cummings was chasing it and seemed to be working for a British plan with Ian Stannard also working hard. Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo was also a big worker. It was becoming clearer that several nations had defined plans and were working for a leader rather than a loose assembly of riders in shared jerseys. Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas took a more than sneaky tow but perhaps the commissaires, in the words of the Girl from Ipanema didn’t see, didn’t see.
The race reached the Vista Chinesa circuit and the breakaway split on the early slopes as Kwiatkowski drove the pace and only Kochetkov could follow. Behind Cummings had closed the gap by minutes but was used up and Castroviejo took over, his broad shoulders forming a windbreak for the peloton lined up on his back wheel.
The Italian Job
With 70km to go Damiano Caruso attacked from the bunch and was joined by Greg Van Avermaet and Geraint Thomas. The luxury of hindsight allows us to see how important this move was, Caruso was going up the road for his team leaders, to force others to chase and to act as a relay for Vincenzo Nibali later on. Van Avermaet meanwhile was getting in the mix of the race just at the same time as other classics riders like Philippe Gilbert and Edvald Boasson Hagen were being dropped. Thomas was a synthesis of the two, a relay for Froome if needed but also a handy finisher himself. The trio were joined by Sergio Henao and Rein Taaramäe. Kwiatkowski and Kochetkov led over the top of the first climb and began the second climb with the chasers closing in. Kwiatkowski kept the pressure up by going solo with 47km to go but within two kilometres he was caught by the Van Avermaet group. Soon after Andrey Zeits of Kazakhstan (and Astana we should note) flew across from the peloton to the breakaway.
The Italian Job, Part II
Over the top of the climb for the penultimate climb and what was left of the peloton was down to about 30 riders as they kept the breakaway within check if not reach. It was on the descent that the race was shaken up by a big attack from Vincenzo Nibali with Fabio Aru for company. The pace was too much for some with Richie Porte and Nelson Oliveira crashing on the descent. There’s rarely a good place to crash downhill at speed but unlike some Alpine descents there was no soft grass, just a deep gutter, the kind needed to drain a road in the tropics. As the descent ended Nibali and Aru had the breakaway within sight and Caruso was waiting as their relay man. Adam Yates, Jacob Fuglsang and Rafał Majka made it across too on the back of the Italian train. Behind the chase didn’t look convincing, Fabian Cancellara was trying but he’d been dropped earlier and so this wasn’t vintage Spartacus. In the space of the descent Nibali had taken 50 seconds on his rivals.
As they climbed the Vista Chinesa for the last time Van Avermaet was hanging on up the climbs in the company of Nibali, Majka, Henao, Yates and Aru. He’d been doing well in the Tour de France, remember he won Stage 5 to Le Lioran after dispatching Rafał Majka for the stage win and yellow jersey and days later extended his lead in the yellow jersey after going in the breakaway. Still he remains a one day race specialist and the others knew it, who wanted to take him to the finish? Nobody but who wanted to work hard either? It was Nibali who launched two attacks. Nibali had to shake Van Avermaet and decisively, there was no point taking 10-20 seconds only to see the Belgium come back in time for the sprint. The Italian was joined by Henao and Majka. The trio had every reason to collaborate, a medal each but also as climbers they were going to pay in the finish if they were caught. The trio led over the top of the final climb as behind everyone was taking their chances. Chris Froome had attacked but didn’t look as incisive as he was caught and passed by Rui Costa and then Julian Alaphilippe came flying past, the Frenchman getting within sight of the Van Avermaet chase group.
Down Canoas Creek
The disaster struck for Nibali as he crashed out on the way down. Was he worried about Henao’s sprint and so trying to force him into a mistake, was he just trying to take as much time as possible? Either way he and Henao crashed hard. Another case of all or nothing for Nibali, reminiscent of his fall in the Florence Worlds in 2014. He can win big and when he doesn’t he often enlivens a race. This time though his legs didn’t give way, his wheels did as he crashed on the final. We’ll never know if he could have got a medal but if Majka was able to stay away then a trio with guaranteed medals could have. But to finish first, first finish. Another faller was Julian Alaphilippe who fell on the descent but got up and got back to the chase group but struggled with a damaged bike.
Majka led along the beachfront with 20 seconds at the 5km to go point and try as hard as he could he was losing time, his hands on the brakehoods rather than in a low tuck. His hope was a disparate chase behind but among the stop-start moments Jakob Fuglsang jumped and Van Avermaet followed and the two were away with Majka in their sights.
For Van Avermaet the sprint looked like a formality or rather it should be only how were his legs after that effort? Fuglsang is a top quality rider but a most infrequent winner, he’s won more races overall than he has stages or one day races. Majka was as cooked as Bigos. Sure enough Van Avermaet launched his sprint and won by several bike lengths. Fuglsang crossed the line with a smile and a fist-pump.
A gripping race. The early moments were formulaic but the scenery was stunning and the imagery enhanced by tactical features such as the beachside cobbles and the jungle road up to the Grumari lookout. The race was thinned down on the Vista Chinesa circuit.
There’s no doubting the manner of the win. A one day race can always throw up a fluke result but this time the race proved selective and the winner was consistently part of the action. Van Avermaet went in a move on Vista Chinesa-Canoas circuit with 70km to go. This was no cautious “hang on in case of a sprint” tactic, he put himself in the front of the action rather than wait for the last time up the climb when the pace would have been too much.
Van Avermaet could not follow Nibali’s moves though, the Italian was the best rider up the Vista Chinesa climb in the race, his downhill attack was both bold and part of a tactical masterclass but it all fell apart with 15km to go and we never quite saw the crash. Which brings us to the TV, the production was lacking in areas. The moto cameras shaky and struggled to follow the riders on the descents. The were long periods when the race was in-play but there were no time gaps and if you wanted to know what was going on you had to time them yourself. All this despite a timing chip on every rider’s forks and a transponder under the saddle. Similarly it was impossible to get the full composition of the peloton. The tech exists, it’s existed for years and really needs to be deployed by now.