One shot at glory: worlds road race analysis

Great Britain knew exactly what they had to do for Mark Cavendish to win the rainbow jersey.

Words by Lionel Birnie

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Monday September 26, 2011

The ability to deliver even when everyone knows what you are going to do and how you are going to do it is what elevates the very best above the rest.

Great Britain’s plan was not a surprise to anyone. It had been more than three years in the making and at no stage on Sunday did they try to hide their cards. In order to win, they had to control the bunch, strangle it almost, and ensure that the run-in to the finish was fast and smooth. There was no bluffing, no attempt at misdirection, they simply went ahead and executed their plan in an intimidating style that has never before been associated with a men’s British team on the road.

Then it was up to Mark Cavendish to do what he does best. He produced an effort reminiscent of his victory in Milan-San Remo two years ago. It wasn’t quite the do-or-die lunge for the line we saw in that race and he was clearly stretched much further than we’re used to seeing. His head was low over the front of the bike, his mouth wide open. His sense of timing was perfect and he got across the line half a wheel in front of the Australian, Matt Goss.

It was the result a lot of people expected. The question is, why didn’t anyone stop Great Britain? Why did the rest of the peloton seemingly sleepwalk into the obvious trap?


The first break, one of only three significant attacks all day, went on the first lap. Pablo Lastras of Spain, Anthony Roux of France, Maxim Iglinskiy of Kazakhstan, Robert Kiserlovski of Croatia, Tanel Kangert of Estonia, Christian Poos of Luxembourg and Oleg Chuzhda of Ukraine got clear and quickly gained a nice advantage. By the time it reached eight minutes, the bunch knew they had to do something. All eyes were on Great Britain.

To a man, the riders in red, white and blue performed heroically, assuming control of the peloton very early in the race. They came to the front with 13 laps, and around 200 kilometres, remaining only to find their only real allies were Germany’s Andreas Klier and Bert Grabsch and, later, the young American Ben King. They had set themselves up for a long day. The question was whether their legs would last.

Chris Froome and Steve Cummings did a huge amount of work to reduce the gap. They swapped turns with the Germans and brought it in to a more manageable five minutes.

A moment’s inattention at the end of the 11th lap allowed Johan Van Summeren and Oliver Kaisen of Belgium, Yoann Offredo of France, Luca Paolini of Italy and Simon Clarke of Australia to get clear.

The pattern of recent World Championships is that the breaks increase in danger as the race goes on. With the Paris-Roubaix winner up the road, this looked like the beginning of the endgame and, with 118 kilometres still to go, the British were about to be put to the test.

With 80 kilometres remaining the two groups came together to make 11 and they had about a minute’s lead over the peloton.

A crash on an awkward corner subtly changed the complexion of the race. Among the riders caught behind it were Thor Hushovd, the defending champion and a potential winner, and Germany’s Tony Martin, the winner of the time trial. They rapidly lost ground and were ruled out of contention.

There were some tentative moves but nothing to really disturb the British rhythm. Giovanni Visconti of Italy tried a couple of times, then Lars Bak of Denmark had more success.

He managed to get up to the lead group, only to find that Roux had taken off on his own. On the penultimate lap, by now, the Norwegians Gabriel Rasch and Kurt-Asle Arvesen gave Britain a hand.

Thomas Voeckler attacked and was joined by a Belgian, Klaas Lodewyck, and Denmark’s Nicki Sorensen. Without meaning any disrespect, Voeckler’s heart must have sunk. At this stage he needed the Belgian to be Philippe Gilbert and the man in red and white to be Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara.

Voeckler’s group caught and passed Roux and the French team leader gave his compatriot a pat on the back for his considerable efforts. Johnny Hoogerland of the Netherlands bridged across to them.

This was a critical time for Britain. With almost 260 kilometres in their legs, would they buckle? Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard were still in front of Cavendish.

Wiggins produced an extraordinary turn of speed to deter any further attacks. It was like doing two pursuit rides back-to-back and was the unsung ride of the day. Wiggins reeled in the leaders and for the first time we saw the size of the task ahead of anyone entertaining ideas of trying to escape. With the bunch just behind them, Voeckler looked as if he was putting everything he had into the effort to stay away on his own, only to realise it was futile.

When Wiggins pulled off the front, the Australian team took over. The Germans and the Italians also set up their trains for Andre Greipel and Daniele Bennati.

Stannard and Thomas moved up the right but Cavendish was unable to go with them, his path slightly impeded. Shoulders were bumping and pedal revs were being missed to avoid collisions all over the place.

Then Cavendish surged up the right-hand side of the road. Knowing he might not get another shot at a world title for five or six years, he gave it everything. The incredible tension of the closing 20 minutes evaporated. And, depending on your point of view, you were perhaps left with one of two emotions. Unbridled joy or deflating anti-climax.

Let’s be objective for a moment and assess the race as a sporting spectacle. If you are not British or a Mark Cavendish fan and you watched all five and a half hours, you may regret wasting the best part of a fine Sunday.

As a contest it was absorbing but on reflection very little happened.

That is, of course, not Great Britain’s fault, nor will it be of any consequence to them. They had the fastest sprinter and executed their plan brilliantly. The more predictable the race, the better, for the British.

In order to win, they had to do everything possible to not only ensure the race ended in a bunch sprint but to make sure it got there quickly and smoothly. They needed to avoid the jerky changes of pace in the final lap so that their men were not put into the red and suddenly went pop. They didn’t want a tense chase that went down to the last minute. Nor did they want to control kamikaze attacks left, right and centre in the final kilometre.

The priority was to engineer a sprint. If Cavendish had to latch onto the Australian or Italian trains in the final kilometre, so be it, he would be perfectly capable of doing do.

It is easy to castigate the other powerful nations, particularly Belgium, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands, for failing to disrupt Great Britain.

However, the circuit offered few opportunities for aggression. The decision to locate the feed zone on the only decent stretch of uphill road was not clever either. The soigneurs narrowed the road to a single lane and reduced the opportunity for aggression there. Instead there were just a few hundred metres of enticing road approaching the finish line.

Why did the anticipated attacks from the likes of Gilbert and Cancellara fail to materialise? For a start, the final hour of racing was incredibly fast. The final 45 kilometres were covered in a just over 45 minutes. Wiggins was averaging around 50 kilometres an hour for his turn. That made getting away from the bunch nigh on impossible. The attackers had one card to play, and not a good card like a queen or a jack, more like a dog-eared two of clubs.

It has been a long wait for a successor to Tom Simpson, Britain’s only previous men’s world road race champion. He won the title 46 years ago and the intervening years have been a fruitless, mostly under-funded, largely unsupported struggle.

On Sunday, Great Britain rode like the most professional team on the planet. The turn-around has been extraordinary. Only 13 years ago, Great Britain had just one starter, Roger Hammond, in the road race at Valkenburg. The following year, 1999, Max Sciandri was the sole British rider. And he was Italian.

Three years ago, in the post-Beijing glow of Olympic domination, minds turned to future objectives. Dave Brailsford sat down with Rod Ellingworth to discuss a question: What would it take to win the men’s world road race championship?

That summer, Cavendish had won four stages at the Tour de France and was already one of the best sprinters in the world. Ellingworth looked ahead at Copenhagen, venue for the 2011 Worlds, and realised the circuit might offer Cavendish the best chance of his career to win the rainbow jersey.

From there, he worked backwards. How could Great Britain field a team capable of, if not controlling the race, at least guiding Cavendish to the very late stages? In classic British Cycling style, as little as possible was left to chance, even down to Cavendish’s aero helmet and skinsuit with three-quarter arms.

Last year, Britain qualified for just three places in the road race at Melbourne. Had they fallen so far short this year, Sunday’s victory would have been far harder. So the next big task was to score the UCI points necessary to rank Great Britain in the top ten, and share those points among enough riders to field as close to a full nine-man team as possible. They managed eight. Itself no mean feat.

And then they had to commit to the plan. They had to be prepared to turn their legs to jelly for their team leader. The belief that Cavendish could finish off the job made that easier, as did the fact that six of the eight ride for Team Sky. Cavendish is almost certain to join them at Team Sky next season.

If there is an irony, it is that David Millar cannot ride for Team Sky because he has served a two-year suspension for doping. He can represent the part-publicly-funded national team at the World Championships. He can captain the squad on the road, using his passion and judgement to superb effect. And yet he cannot ride for a team sponsored by companies with uncomfortably close links to the phone hacking scandal.

Someone once told me that to appreciate an opera, you have to pay attention from the start, immerse yourself in the drama and allow the narrative to wash over you. Then, I was assured, I would begin to understand a story being told in a foreign language. I might even begin to appreciate a complex piece of work on a metaphysical level. After watching half a dozen or so, I would develop a feel for it and see the subtly crafted layers within. But, I was warned, I would have to work at it.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to criticise the men’s elite road race at the World Championships. Nothing happens for the first five hours. It’s only worth watching the last lap. It’s inappropriate to name the winner of a one-off race the world champion. And it’s not even the best or most challenging one-day race of the season. All of those are fair points.

But whether you were rooting for Cavendish or willing someone else to spring out of the bunch and spoil the ending, the race was engaging from start to finish. The tension came from recognising just how much Great Britain had placed on the line.

By dedicating all their resources to such an obvious battle plan so early in the race, they risked ridicule if it had all gone wrong. There would have been no shortage of people willing to point out where they went wrong, to revel in the fact that they simply weren’t up to it or that they bossed the race when it didn’t matter and evaporated from view when it did.

It may not have been the most explosive or exciting race of the season. The course did not offer up a classic. But it is fundamentally flawed to think that a race without attacking incident is an easy one.
What Great Britain pulled off on Sunday was as hard as it gets. They controlled a field of the best riders in the world as if they were on a length of invisible string. They were unflustered when attacks went. Had Cancellara, Boasson Hagen and Gilbert attacked on the final lap, it’s safe to say Wiggins would not have panicked. He would just have continued his painful individual time trial effort as they’d planned all along, trusting that it would be enough to bring them back.

So, why didn’t anyone stop Great Britain from winning the Worlds? Quite simply because they couldn’t.

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