Previews of the women’s and men’s Olympic road races courses had already highlighted the risk of the final descent before the flat run-in to the finish line, but opinion remains split on whether the course was fully to blame.
When Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) – a rider known for his skilled descending – and Sergio Henao (Colombia) both crashed out whilst leading the men’s race it became clear that the concerns about the course may have been well founded.
Earlier in the race Richie Porte (Australia) had already come off the road and broken his shoulder blade following a collision with a post, and after Nibali went down so too did Geraint Thomas (Great Britain), although he was able to finish the race.
The worst crash of all came in the women’s race when lone leader Annemiek van Vleuten (the Netherlands) somersaulted over her bike and landed very heavily in the large gutter, in what looked like a very similar place to where Thomas went down.
The Dutchwoman had a strong chance of taking the win but was still immobile when a chasing group went past a few minutes after the crash. Her injuries are less severe than it looked like they would be at first, and she is recovering in hospital from spinal fractures.
Race organiser and former commissaire Colin Clews was clear in his thoughts on the descent, saying that it shouldn’t have been used.
“I think for that particular descent, it should have been a no-no and that’s based on knowledge from around the world as a commissaire and also as a technical delegate,” Clews said.
“For there to be so many crashes, it does raise a big question as to whether or not it was appropriate for that particular descent to be used.
“Personally I would say it did affect the gold medal result of both races,” he continued.
“For someone like Nibali, who is known to be one of the best descenders, for him to crash really does raise massive questions.
“It’s one race, but they’re not out to wreck their careers and they were obviously going down that hill at a speed and in a way that they believed they could have got down to the bottom.”
But not everyone agrees, with JLT-Condor boss and former Team GB coach John Herety saying that the riders have to take some responsibility for the risks they take.
“For sure more safety could have been done in terms of the run-offs,” he said, “but for me it was a point in the race where everybody was on the limit. They made mistakes and it’s as simple as that.
“It wasn’t actually the hazards that caused the crash, it was people pushing the envelope.”
He did go on to comment on the safety of the descent, but pointed out that some extra safety measures wouldn’t have been practical.
“There were elements where the safety element could have been better. Could they have put some kind of cushioning around every tree on that descent? No.
“You wouldn’t do it on the Tour de France either; there are times in the Tour where if you make a mistake you go over into a ravine.”
Herety was understandably concerned for the welfare of the riders involved in the crashes, particularly van Vleuten, but stopped short of joining the criticism of the course, saying, “I have mixed feelings in terms of the outcry about [the course].”
With Nibali’s crash coming at a time when he was probably riding for gold, Herety said the Italian must have been taking big risks on the descent in search of victory.
“We’re talking about someone who’s a top-top descender, and he crashed,” Herety added.
“That can only be somebody that was pushing it to the very, very limit trying to win an Olympic gold medal.”
Herety also argued that any further safety measures could have been moving the problem rather than solving it. The removal of the gully would have meant the riders hit the curb, no curb and they’d hit a tree.
Chris Boardman watched both the men’s and women’s races as he was commentating on the BBC’s coverage.
The former-Olympic track cyclist didn’t hold back in his criticism of the descent saying that he was “angry about it.”
“I went down and had a look at the course and saw those edges,” Boardman said. “We knew it was way past being technical; it was dangerous.
“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 [after the women’s race].”
Moving to head off the criticism of the course the UCI said in a statement: “The Rio 2016 road race course was carefully designed and was extensively tested at the test event and in training.
“We do our utmost to design safe, challenging courses but unfortunately crashes do sometimes occur due to a combination of factors.”
A test event was held in August 2015 to give riders the opportunity to race the course and was won by French rider Alexis Vuillermoz.