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Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal of Canada rides during a training session for the Cycling Road Race ahead of the 2012 London Olympic games on the Box Hill circuit, southwest of London, on July 26. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal of Canada rides during a training session for the Cycling Road Race ahead of the 2012 London Olympic games on the Box Hill circuit, southwest of London, on July 26. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Can Ryder Hesjedal stop the Brits? Add to ...

The men’s cycling road race is the thriller event on day one of the Games’ first official day of competition, and there is really only one question: Will Britain’s Mark Cavendish, the faster sprinter on the planet, take it?

For Canadians, the question is whether Ryder Hesjedal, the surprise winner of the Giro D’Italia, can bounce back after his bruising Tour de France fall on July 6. He could surprise once more, though even he admits the British team could flatten everyone.

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Cavendish is certainly the odds-on fave and his teammates, including last Sunday’s Tour winner Bradley Wiggins, have already announced that their role in the 250-km race is to get their boy over the line first. Bike-loving Britain will go into a collective funk if Cavendish loses. If he wins, Britain will have nailed the top prize in the two top road cycling events -- the Tour and the Olympics -- within six days.

The men's cycling race is such a biggie for Britain that the Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, among other royalty and celebrities, might make an appearance at the finish line. Both the prince and the duchess hope to meet Canadian athletes today, including the cyclists and badminton players.

But neither Cavendish nor his adoring fans should count on British victory. That’s because the road race is a long, grueling event with one formidable obstacle in the form of Box Hill, where anything can happen.

The race begins and ends on the Mall, the boulevard in front of Buckingham Palace. Box Hill is about 50kms to the south and this is where the race’s war of attrition will take place. The cyclists must do nine circuits of the hill, which has a steep gradient (6 degrees) and narrow roads. Each circuit is 2 1/2 kms long and it will be a meat grinder, at about 22 minutes a lap.

The potential trouble for Cavendish is that he is a sprinter, not a climber. Cav, as he is called, has lost about 7 pounds to make himself more competitive on the climbs.

On the plus side, he is in top fighting form, having just finished the Tour, where he won the spectacular final sprint in Paris. And, unlike Hesjedal, he has a team to put him into position to win. Hesjedal was the only Canadian to qualify for the race and has no one he can count on to optimize his strategy and energy conservation through drafting -- riding in another cyclist’s slipstream. He will, of course, try to work with bikers from other countries, but that’s something of a crap shoot.

The race is expected to end at about 3.30pm London time after passing a crowd estimated at 1-million along the way. This is one of the few Olympic events that requires no ticket and promises front-row viewing, however brief as the planet’s top cyclists blast through the English countryside on what is, in effect, a mini Tour de France.