The entire peloton rode for Team GB and Mark Cavendish to lose the Olympic road race. Perfectly reasonable.
Words by Edward Pickering
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Saturday July 28, 2012
Chapatte’s Law is a bike racing rule of thumb, named after the French television commentator who invented it, which says that in order to stay away, a break needs one minute’s lead for every 10 kilometres remaining.
When the Great Britain team crested Box Hill for the last time in the Olympic men’s road race, one minute behind a large break of riders, with 45 kilometres left to The Mall, the balance of power still looked to favour the home nation.
Until this point, Great Britain looked to have control of the race. They were following the tactics they’d used to win the World Championships last year with Mark Cavendish. The strategy Team Sky just used to win the Tour de France was along similar lines.
But perhaps the riders of Team GB, David Millar, Ian Stannard, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cavendish overestimated their own strength. So, too, had a couple of other teams, perhaps hoping to profit from their work. The gap between the break and the bunch remained doggedly stable, hovering between 50 seconds and a minute, all the way to the finish, where Alexandre Vinokourov was putting the hex on Rigoberto Uran in the two-up sprint for the gold medal.
What went wrong?
Nothing. Great Britain rode the only way they could to give themselves a chance of a win. Meanwhile, everybody else in the race was working on preventing this from happening. This time, the odds were too stacked against them. Much as the fairytale story would have been for Cavendish to win the first gold of the London Olympic Games, the peloton was in no mood to allow this to happen.
First, they rode to make Cavendish lose. And then the remaining riders could get on with trying to win. It’s how ambitious riders have dealt with sprinters since time immemorial, and it’s what makes cycling such a fascinating, nuanced, tactical sport, compared to marathon running, which has similar physical demands, but few tactics beyond effective pace judgement. There’s a very fair fight between brains and brawn in cycling.
Many pundits looked at dominant performances by British riders at last year’s World Championships, and at the Tour de France this summer, as their supporting evidence for predicting a Cavendish win on The Mall. But they should have looked at this year’s Milan-San Remo or Ghent-Wevelgem instead. In both races, Cavendish started as a favourite, and in both races, he was put out of the picture before he could unleash his primary weapon in the sprint. Over the Manie climb in Milan-San Remo, with 100 kilometres still to race, Cavendish was dropped, and once the front group realised he was gone, there was a full 30-man team time trial on the front of the lead group to ensure he stayed gone. The same happened in Ghent-Wevelgem, only closer to the finish.
In the Olympic road race, it looked like the race went away from Team GB over the ninth and last climb of Box Hill when Fabian Cancellara, Luis Leon Sanchez, Vinokourov, Uran, Alejandro Valverde and a few others bridged from the peloton to the 20-man-plus front group.
But the race had turned against them as early as the fifth ascent, when 11 strong riders, including Sylvain Chavanel, Roman Kreuziger, Taylor Phinney and Vincenzo Nibali, went away. At that point, there was also the early escape of 11 riders further up the road.
Two laps later, the Nibali group caught the front group, meaning that GB were effectively outnumbered by around 20 to four. The size, and therefore relative freshness of the group meant that when Cancellara and his companions bridged up, there was a huge front group including several teams with strength in numbers. There were three Swiss riders, plus three Spanish. Both teams donated significant manpower, while GB were given the odd turn by German Bert Grabsch. With Cavendish’s four team mates already tired from riding on the front virtually from the start of the race, the balance of power had shifted inexorably. Cavendish had lost the race. Or more accurately, his rivals had made him lose it.
FACTORS WHICH AFFECTED TEAM GB’S RACE
1) Team size
A nine-man team is big enough to dominate a long race on flattish roads, which is why Cavendish won the world championships last year. A five-man team is evidently not enough.
2) The Olympic road race isn’t the Tour de France
Chapatte’s Law works fine when the race is up to 200 kilometres long, and the break consists of four to six or seven riders. At the Tour, we’ve lost count of the number of times breaks have been efficiently shut down by the sprinters’ teams. A break of 11, let alone 22, would never be allowed up the road on a flat stage in the first week of the Tour. GB should have kept a closer eye on the size of the groups that went away, but the alternative was to expend even more energy earlier on to control breaks. With four domestiques, they decided it was better to let an early break go and for it to be potentially dangerous than to spend the first hour of the race trying to let the right break go.
3) Race radios
There were no race radios in the Olympic road race. It wouldn’t have taken a DS yelling into the riders’ earpieces to tell them that a 25-plus rider break including Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali, Stuart O’Grady, Taylor Phinney, Sylvain Chavanel and Luis Leon Sanchez was going to be extremely difficult to shut down, but the lack of communication would have made regulating the early break’s lead more a matter of guesswork. Whether this is a good thing or not is probably dictated by each fan’s own prejudice, but it certainly contributed to the race being quite unusual in its pattern.
4) The Olympic road race isn’t the Tour de France (part 2)
Cycling’s a very win-centric sport. Professionals are paid to win, and nowhere else really counts, although recent years have seen podium placings in major races, and top 10s in Grand Tours, increase in importance. At the Olympic Games, there are three medals, and the attitude is definitely one of winning silver or bronze, not losing gold. The front group was fully committed, because every single rider in it could realistically hope that they might get something from the race, whether they were a sprinter or not.
5) Cavendish and GB were too good
Rarely have I seen the tactics of every single team in a race revolve around the presence of one individual to such an extent as in this race. For Team GB, Cavendish was Plan A, and there was no Plan B. The Germans knew it, and they sat behind GB in the peloton, committing less to the chase in the hope that GB would bring the escapes back, and they would be more fresh in the lead-out, giving André Greipel a chance. Australia were less confident in Matt Goss, putting men up the road in the break. Spain, with no sprinter, knew they had to put men up the road, preferably two or three. The composition of the break was as key to its success as its size was.
British cycling seems to be able to do no wrong at the moment, and Cavendish has been talking all week about the strength and confidence of the team. “If it all goes to plan, it will be one of the biggest performances we’ve ever seen in road racing,” said David Millar before the race. The British team weren’t assuming they had won, but they were a lot less circumspect about the possibility than Team Sky had been about Bradley Wiggins’ much more certain win in the Tour in the last week of that race. I must admit, I thought Cavendish would win today, and I’ve no doubt much of the nation expected or hoped he would, too. It’s a home Olympics for Cavendish, and the story would have been perfect. You can hardly blame Team GB for thinking along the same lines.
7) The Olympic road race isn’t the Tour de France (part 3)
With national teams, and such a small number of riders for each, the Olympic road race is an incredibly difficult race to read. What’s more, it’s only held every four years, so there’s no discernible pattern to each one. Normal tactics would dictate that it would be fine to hold the lead group at a minute, then shut it down on the final flat run-in to London. In other races, teams actually allow the break to stay away, because shutting it down too early encourages counter-attacks. Not in this case.