The final descent
We all love exciting racing, and it’s great when the parcours demands the best riders in the world are at the top of their game when going up a climb but also when they’re coming back down the other side.
However, the Rio 2016 Olympic road race courses took this a step beyond with the final descent, which was used by both the men’s and women’s race. The descent was actually covered a number of times in the men’s race, but it was the final time down as the riders struck out for gold that proved the most dangerous.
On Saturday in the men’s race, Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Sergio Henao (Colombia) crashed out of the race. The Italian has been flown home for surgery on his collarbone, while the Colombian was left with a fractured pelvis.
Further down the road Geraint Thomas (Great Britain) was seen sat in a deep gutter after also crashing. He was able to remount and finish but went from a potential medal winning position to 11th.
The worst incident of the weekend came on the women’s race when lone leader Annemiek van Vleuten (the Netherlands) was involved in a terrible looking crash, in what appeared to be the same place that Thomas had gone down.
Riders and spectators were rightly concerned as the Dutchwoman was seen to have not moved some time later when a group of chasers passed her.
Thankfully her injuries now look to be less severe than the crash and its immediate aftermath led us to believe, and she is in intensive care for observation as she begins her recovery from spinal fractures.
Chris Boardman summed up the descent best when he said: “We knew the descent was treacherous. I looked at that road furniture and thought, nobody can crash here and just get up. It is really bad and that is what we have seen today.”
Smaller teams make for exciting racing
Despite that final treacherous descent, the majority of the course and much of the racing actually made for very exciting viewing.
Cobbles, climbs, cross winds all added their share of animation to proceedings but a big factor was the team sizes.
Vastly different to the WorldTour teams of nine riders, the maximum team size was five with some nations only eligible for a single berth on the start line.
With no chance of marginally gained control of the peloton, the race was a lot more open and all the better for it.
Admittedly, many of the one day Spring Classics usually end up with small select groups of riders with no teammates, but smaller teams could and should be something the UCI looks at for WorldTour races.
Heartbreak at the last for Mara Abbott
Mara Abbott (USA) was quite clearly the best climber on the final ascent in the women’s race, capabilities that have seen her come out on top at the Giro Rosa on several occasions.
Passed by Van Vleuten at the summit, Abbott took her time on the descent and after the Dutchwoman’s fall found herself leading the race and with one hand on the gold medal.
Not known for her time trialling, the American held the chasing group of Anna van der Breggen (the Netherlands), Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) at bay for long enough that we started to believe that should could go all the way.
In the end, the trio passed her with about 500 metres to go and took gold, silver and bronze respectively. In sight of the finish line and after such a strong ride, Abbott watched as the three medals were taken in front of her and she came over the line just four seconds later.
Lizzie Armitstead back in a racing mindset
London 2012 silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) has had one of the worst possible build-ups to any major event after her problems with the anti-doping whereabouts system and a resulting suspension.
Interviews before the race showed the mental strain the whole episode had had on the world champion, and she pointed out that many people are unlikely to look at her or her performances in quite the same way again.
In the end Armitstead had to settle for fifth place after a strong climbing performance from Abbott put many riders, including the Brit, in trouble on the final climb.
Armitstead led the chase of what by then was the third group on the road but they couldn’t close the gap to the four out front.
Although she fell short of a medal the ride showed that whatever else has been going on, the world champion can still get her head in the game when she needs to.
Geraint Thomas down but certainly not out
Strong and tactically wily as ever, the Welshman showed just why he was getting so good at one day races before he switched his focus to stage racing (and perhaps now he might switch that focus back).
Although he missed the big move when Nibali, Henao and eventual bronze medallist Raja Majka (Poland) went away, the untimely crash that saw the Pole out front on his own brought Thomas back into contention for a podium finish.
As mentioned above, in the end a crash on a very sketchy descent ended his medal aspirations but the signs of a continuation towards the top of professional cycling are still there for the 30-year-old.
Fingers crossed we get to see his in a leadership role come the Classics.