Britain’s carefully orchestrated plan to dominate the Olympic cycling events were dashed Saturday when Alexandr Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won the road race, with Columbia and Norway taking the silver and bronze spots.
The race was Britain’s to lose and Britain lost badly. Mark Cavenish, backed by an all-star team of riders, was the odds-on favourite to win the 250-km event and hand Team GB its first gold on the first official day of the Games.
The victory by Vino, as he is known, marks one of the biggest upsets in Olympic cycling history. Cavendish finished a disappointing 29th. The rest of the Brits were nowhere.
Vinokourov’s victory was a surprise. At 38, he is among the oldest riders in the Olympics and, following a severe injury in the 2011 Tour de France, had announced his retirement, only to rescind in a few months later. He was banned for a year after the 2007 Tour after a doping scandal.
Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal, who won the Giro D’Italia two months ago, was never a contender in the race. He spent almost all of his time at the back of the pack, which started with 144 riders from 63 countries and ended with 110.
He finished 63rd, though at points, he was lolling around the 100th position.
The race simply didn’t follow Britain’s script. Six days ago, the British Team Sky propelled Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to one-two sweep in the Tour, marking the first British victory in the century-long history of the world’s best-known road race. Cavendish won the final sprint into Paris, making him the fastest sprinter on the planet. His teammates duly announced that they would work to make him the victor in the Olympic road race.
The British plan looked good at first. The Brits led the peleton throughout the race from London through the lush English countryside, putting them into position for what would, in effect, offer them a repeat of their performance on the last day of the Tour.
It didn’t work that way. Early in the race, a group of 12 formed a breakaway and, at points, led by a healthy five minutes or so. The breakaway group grew in size, with the Italians, a Belgian rider and Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara looking particularly strong. Cancellara destroyed his chances for a medal when he hurtled into a crash barrier, injuring his arm, on a right-hand turn late in the race.
The Brits were never able to close the gap. At one point, Froome and another hotshot British rider, David Millar, essentially gave up and Cavendish was on his own.
In the final kilomtres, the race evolved into a shoot-out between Vinokourov and Columbia’s Rigoberto Uran, with the Kazakh cyclist winning the draw. Norway’s Alexander Kristoff placed third and an American, Taylor Phinney, rolled into the fourth spot.
Hesjedal had a huge disadvantage form the onset, in that he was the only Canadian to qualify for the Olympic road race and had to ride on his own, meaning he had no strategic or drafting support. “I was riding conservatively and not going for all the attacks on the hill,” he said after the race in a reference to the nine grueling circuits of Box Hill, the steepest climb of the race.
The Canadian goes on to the time trial, where he is expected to perform better, though he did not sound optimistic on Saturday. “There are many [time trial] specialists that are more proven than me,” he said.
With the men’s road race done, the focus for a cycling medal shifts to the women’s road team, led by Clara Hughes. The trio of Canadians face their road race, which is 140 kms long, on Sunday.