Cycling is one of the few disciplines that was on the schedule for the very first edition of the Olympic Games and in a sport that is do focused on tradition and historic events, it is no wonder that the Olympic road race is a huge highlight. Ever since it was announced that the 2016 event will be one of the hilliest yet, the hype around the race in Rio has been huge and as the race has attracted the attention of almost every grand tour specialist, Saturday’s race will be one of the most highly anticipated in recent history. A brutal course and brutal heat will make it a memorable race of attrition that will decide who’s going to wear the golden symbols for the next for years.
The Olympics have a mythical status in most sports but for some reason it has been slightly different in road cycling. While it is the pinnacle event for most disciplines, the magnitude of the Tour de France and the classics and the fact that a victory gives no distinctive jersey have all contributed to the fact that the Olympic road race has played less of a role in the sport of cycling. Furthermore, the fact that only amateurs were allowed in the Olympic events until 1996 gave the event a position far down the hierarchy.
It hasn’t been the same in the other cycling disciplines. Track cycling has no big event like the Tour and for riders that excel on the boards, the Olympics are the absolute highlight. The same goes for mountain bike and BMX which are relatively new disciplines in the Olympic portfolio.
However, things have gradually changed since professional riders became eligible for the event and nowadays road riders pay more attention to the Olympics than they have traditionally done. Every fourth year, the battle for the prestigious gold medal now features close to the top of the list for every rider with a realistic chance on the course that the host city has designed. Even in 2016 when the route in Rio is tailor-made for Tour de France contenders, most of the climbers and GC riders have put the Brazilian event almost on par with the Tour when they planned their 2016 season.
The slightly less glorious prestige compared to other sports is not for a lack of history. In fact, the road race is one of the few events that have been on the schedule for every Olympic Games since 1896 and so it dates back longer than the Tour and most of the classics. Greek rider Aristidis Konstantinidis became the first gold medallist but it wasn’t until 1912 that the sport was back on the calendar. That year it returned as a team and individual time trial and it stayed that way until 1928 when the road race returned, both in an individual and team format. The team race was replaced by a team time trial for the 1960 Games and those two disciplines formed the road programme until things changed for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The team time trial was replaced by an individual race against the clock and since then the two key disciplines of road cycling have offered the two gold medals in road cycling at the Olympics. Track cycling was introduced in 1988, mountain biking was added to the schedule in 1996 and BMX is the newest Olympic cycling discipline, having made its debut in 2008.
If one combines all cycling disciplines for both genders, it is no surprise that the medal table is topped by those of cycling’s traditional key countries that have been strong on both the road and the track. France tops the table with 89 medals, Italy are second with 57 and Great Britain round out the top 3 with 75 medals but fewer golds than their Italian rivals. The top 5 is completed by the Netherlands and the USAA while powerhouses like Belgium and Spain that are mostly focused on the road, find themselves down in 10th and 12th respectively.
If one takes a look at the list of medallists, it is clear that road cycling has never been a major event on the Olympic schedule. None of cycling’s greatest stars won the race in the 1900s. The names of 1956 winner Ercole Baldini and 1972 winner Hennie Kuiper stand out but there is no Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi or Bernard Hinault on the list. In 2000s, however, things have changed with the introduction of a professional field and in this century, the gold medals have been taken by Jan Ullrich, Paolo Bettini, Samuel Sanchez and Alexander Vinokourov who all belong to the greatest riders in the sport.
The Olympic road race may now be one of the big highlights on the international calendar but it is still a strange and very unusual event. While most one-day races have a more or less fixed route with little room for variation, the Olympics are of a different nature. Held on different courses from year to year, the aim is to provide different types of riders with the opportunity to become olympic champions at some point during their career. The road race has no fixed format: one year it may be a paradise for the sprinters while the next may be one for the climbers or classics specialists
In that sense, it is different from many other sports in which the venue has little influence on the outcome. Road cycling is one of the most versatile sports and that makes it much harder to talk about the sport's best athlete. While the Olympic champion can never be regarded as the strongest rider in every aspect of road cycling, most of the best riders in a generation usually get the opportunity to go for gold at some point in his career.
The last two editions of the Games clearly reflect this. In 2012, most of the climbers were overlooked in the selection process as the flat course in London gave them very little room to shine. Those who were selected, mostly went there to be part of the unique Olympic experience but for the sprinters it was a completely different affair. For the fast guys, the flat course in London made the race a huge goal and they all made it a key objective of their season.
This year there will barely be any sprinters on the start line. The course in Rio is generally regarded as one for climbers and stage race specialists who have what could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go for gold. That has turned it into a huge goal for many riders who have tried to find the right balance between going for both the Tour and the Olympics. As the World Championships mostly appeal to classics specialists or sprinters, the big grand tour contenders rarely get a chance to go one for one of the major one-day races and this unique aspect has turned the Rio event into one of the most highly anticipated races in recent years.
In modern day sports, money plays a crucial role and cycling is no exception. Usually, the riders represent their trade teams but on a few occasions they return to the past to represent their country. That happens at the World Championships and the Olympics offer another chance to ride in national colours. While it takes the role of national pride to a whole new level, it creates difficulties for the national coaches who suddenly have to unite rivals in the fight for a common goal. The history is loaded with examples where those missions have failed and where national teams have been divided into different camps that reflect their trade teams and personal relationships. In modern day cycling, former Italian national coach Franco Ballerini was famously known for his ability to unite what had usually been a very disharmonious Italian team.
Like most other sports, cycling is usually a rather hierarchical with the best teams usually competing against each other but at the World Championships and the Olympics, the smaller nations get their chance to get some time in the spotlight. Lesser-known riders that are usually far from the glory of the WorldTour events race against the world's biggest starts in an event that really matters. At the same time, it is the only event where different teams are not on equal terms when they take to the start line. The level of tactics is further increased by the fact that some nations have far more riders than others and it is usually a significant disadvantage for even the strongest rider to come from a small nation.
Compared to the World Championships, the Olympics are even more complicated. In that race, even the strongest teams only have five riders at the start. Not even the best equipped formations can control a 260km race and this makes it a very tactical affair. The London race was a prime example. The British team went into the race with the best two riders from the Tour de France but the combined power of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome was enough to set Cavendish up for a sprint win. This year the hilly course will be even harder to control and it could very well require a good amount of luck and tactical astuteness to pick the race-winning move even in a race that should be one of attrition.
Unlike the biggest classics, the Olympics and Worlds are usually held as some kind of a circuit race. The entire race may not be held on a single circuit – that hasn’t been the case for the last few editions – but there is always some kind of repetition involved. This makes the races even more special and some riders seem to prefer this format more than others. This year two different circuits will be involved in the make-up of what is a very unique course.
When the event was last held in 2012, Mark Cavendish was the big favourite to win Olympic gold on home soil and so it became a race of everybody versus the Brits. A big group went clear in the hilly zone and even though Wiggins and Froome did their best to bring it all back together, it turned out to be impossible. After Fabian Cancellara had crashed out of the break in spectacular fashion, Alexandre Vinokourov and Rigoberto Uran rode away and the Kazakh famously caught his Colombian rival by surprise to take Olympic gold in the penultimate race of his career. Alexander Kristoff won the sprint for bronze when the rest of the break arrived at the finish. Having retired almost straight after his winning ride, Vinokourov won’t defend his title and Kristoff won’t be present on a course that doesn’t suit him. Uran will be the only rider from the 2012 podium to try to improve on the result, with the Cannondale rider being part of a formidable Colombian team.
Knowing about the hilly nature of the terrain around Rio de Janeiro, many climbers and grand tour specialists licked their lips in anticipation as soon as it was announced that the Brazilian city had been selected to host the 2016 Games. They were by no means left disappointed when the course was announced in late 2014 as it turned out to be just as hilly as many had hoped.
The circuit format rarely gives much room for longer climbs to be included in Olympic and Worlds road races but the course in Rio is as close to a mountain stage of a grand tour that you will probably ever get at this kind of event. The course is held on two separate circuits that will be repeated several times and the second one includes an 8km climb that will be tackled three times. With the opening part including shorter, steeper climbs and even some cobbles, the race has a bit of everything and is an exciting mix between a hilly classic and a mountain stage from a grand tour. That has made many teams uncertain about what to expect but after having done recons during the winter, many are convinced that it is a race for the real climbers and grand tour specialists.
A Worlds and an Olympic road race of course needs to have classics distance and the race in Rio has exactly that. At 237.5km, it may not be quite as long as the big one-day race but with the huge amount of climbing, it will be a tough affair. It can be split into several parts, with the main part of the race taking place on the two circuits. At the start, in between the two circuits and in the end, the riders will do a few kilometres of flat riding along the coast.
The riders will take the start at the famous Copacabana in Rio from where they will follow the coastal road to the Grumari circuit. This section is 37.5km long and includes the small Joa climb after 13km of racing.
The riders will now do four laps of the 24.7km circuit. The first part is largely flat and follows the lumpy coastal road that even includes a small section of cobbles. A strip has been paved for the time trial but for the road race the riders can’t avoid the rough surface. Then they will head inland to go up the Grumari climb which averages 9.4% over 1.3km. The first 600m are easy at 3-5% but then a very steep section with double-digit gradient follows, peaking at 24.1%. The climb levels out near the top. After the climb, it’s back onto flat roads before the riders hit the Grota Funda climb which averages 6.8% over 2.13km. It is muc more regular than the first climb as it only briefly touches 10% and only eases off slightly at the midpoint. From there, the riders will descend to the coast to complete the circuit.
After their four laps of the Grumari circuit, they riders will head back towards Copacabana along the same flat coastal road that they used for the first part of the race. After 26km of flat roads, they will hit the 25.5km Vista Chinesa circuit which they will cover twice. It can be split into two pats the first 13km consist of the Vista Chinesa climb which averages 6.2% over 8.9km and the subsequent technical descent. The average gradient of the climb is deceptive as the gradient barely drops below the 10% mark for the first 4km. Then there’s a short descent of one kilometre and then the final 5km are uphill at 3-7%. The final half of the circuit is almost completely flat.
After two laps of the circuit, the riders will almost do another full lap, meaning that they will go up the climb for a third time. They will reach the top with 14.8km to go and then they will again head down the descent and do the first part of the flat section. However, they won’t complete the circuit as they will turn left when they reach the coast and then follow the flat coastal road for the final 4.6km to the finish. It’s a long, straight, almost completely flat road only one real turn coming 500m from the finish at the Copabana where a worthy winner of what shapes up to be one of the hardest one-day races in recent memory, will be crowned.
Going into the Olympics, the weather has been a key point of discussion. It may be winter in Brazil but that doesn’t mean that it will be like a European spring classic. Instead, the riders have prepared themselves for brutal heat and humid conditions and many have arrived early to get acclimatized to both the time zone and the markedly different weather conditions.
It has been raining a bit the last few days but by the time the Olympics start for real, the heat will have returned. Saturday is forecasted to be hot and sunny, with the temperature expected to reach a maximum of 31 degrees.
There will only be a light wind from a northerly direction and it will gradually turn around to come from the southeast in the final second half of the race. This means that the riders will have a crosswind in the coastal sections and a headwind and crosswind on the first two climbs. There will be a crosswind on the final climb and a cross-headwind on the descent and the final flat part leading to the finish.
One-day races are always harder to predict than stage races as luck and race circumstances play a much bigger role. However, the Olympic road race is in another league and it rarely turns out as one expects. The race has been won by outsiders almost every year since professional riders were allowed and in fact it is only Paolo Bettini’s victory in 2004 that can be described as a triumph for the pre-race favourite.
It is definitely no coincidence that riders like Alexandre Vinokourov, Samuel Sanchez and Jan Ullrich have managed to take surprise victories. The small five-rider teams mean that it is impossible for a single team to control such a long race – just ask the Brits! This means that it is a race where aggression and an attacking approach really pay off and this makes it very hard for the pre-race favourites to come out on top. They don’t get any kind of freedom and have to wait for the finale to make their moves. At the same time, they want to avoid being on the defensive so very often they ask their lieutenants to go on the attack. As soon as a group with riders from all the major teams is gone, the race is very much over for the pre-race favourites.
We are very likely to experience a similar scenario in Rio. The tough course means that the race will be even harder to control than the one in London and it really takes a big alliance between a few very strong teams to try to bring it back together. On the other hand, the race is so hard that it will be one of attrition and it will be won by a very good climber. This means that there will be less room for luck and we would have a complete surprise as the final winner. At the same time, it will be hard for the captains of the major nations to get into the right moves and this could very well make it a race for lieutenants or even lone riders from small countries. As Vinokourov’s win in 2012 proves, it is not necessarily a disadvantage to come from a small team. In this kind of race, riders from Spain, Italy, France, Colombia and Great Britain will be heavily marked but it won’t be the same for riders from smaller nations. At the World Championships, the big nations have a big advantage but that’s not the case here.
Going into the race, there has been a lot of discussion about which riders to select. The first circuit is like a real classic and with the mix of cobbles and short, steep climbs, it suits the classics specialists pretty well. However, the second circuit is much tougher and three times up the Vista Chinesa climb will do a lot of damage. The first four kilometres average more than 10% so it’s a proper climb and with three passages, it becomes like a real mountain stage in a grand tour. Honestly, we can’t really imagine that this will be a race for classics riders like Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert and it is no surprise that most nations have gone with their climbers. Initially, Belgium had decided to select only one classics rider but ultimately both Gilbert and Van Avermaet got the nod. For this kind of course, they would probably have been better off if they had stuck to their original plan.
The classics riders only have one real chance: to attack from afar. In fact, the finale is so hard that it’s the only option for the vast majority of riders. If it comes down to a battle on the final climb, no one is going to match the likes of Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and the other grand tour specialists. Hence, most riders will be keen to ride aggressively and this sets the scene for a very animated and uncontrollable race.
The first part of the race isn’t too difficult so it will probably be possible for the big nations to let a reasonable group get away. However, when the terrain gets hillier and we get into the second half of the race, we doubt that anyone will be able to take control. As it happened in Beijing and London, we imagine that a big group with representation from all of the big countries will go clear and we don’t believe that one or two nations will be strong enough to bring it back. To avoid getting caught out, Spain, Great Britain and Colombia all want to have riders in such a group and they have strong lieutenants with whom they are comfortable. Hence, favourites like Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome will probably be caught out so we expect this race to be decided by the strong climbers that are just below the best in the hierarchy.
In 2013, Alejandro Valverde probably cost Joaquim Rodriguez the rainbow jersey when the Movistar leader let Rui Costa rejoin Rodriguez in the finale. Since then, the pair have had a tainted relationship but now Valverde could be the key that will give Rodriguez a fairytale end to his career. It hasn’t been officially confirmed yet but it seems increasingly likely that the race in Rio will be the final in Rodriguez’s glorious career and he finds himself in the perfect position to end his time as a professional rider on a high.
Rodriguez came out of the Tour de France in outstanding condition and his aggressive riding in stages 19 and 20 proved that he was maybe the best rider in the final week of the race. He confirmed his form at the Clasica San Sebastian where he was the strongest rider on the final climb and he was only caught by Bauke Mollema, Valverde and Tony Gallopin at the top of the wall. When it comes to form, Rodriguez is at his peak and he has a long history of being strong shortly after his grand tours. It is no coincidence that he a double winner of Il Lombardia where he has always benefited from his post-Vuelta condition.
Rodriguez is just below Valverde in the internal Spanish hierarchy and as said, that could be a blessing in disguise. While Valverde will be closely marked, Rodriguez will have more freedom and he has often played the role in the Spanish team of joining the attacks a little earlier in the race. This could very well be the tactic that works in this race and if he finds himself in a strong group in the finale, we doubt that anyone will be able to follow Rodriguez. He loves the steep gradients of the final climb and he has proved that he can handle both the heat and the distance. He is even reasonably fast in a sprint so if he gets to the finish with one or two tiny climbers, he has a solid chance. In 2013, Valverde cost Rodriguez the win but now he could be the key that allows the Katusha leader the freedom to attack from the far. We believe in a fairytale end to his career and put Rodriguez on top of our list of favourites.
Another excellent climber just below the best in the hierarchy is Wout Poels. On certain occasions, the Dutchman even looked stronger than his team captain Froome in the Tour and it was evident that he ended the race in great form. Poels has flown under the radar for this race and the Dutchmen are not among the biggest favourites. This could open the door for Poels to join a key move and if he makes it into such a move, he won’t be easy to beat.
By winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Poels has proved that he can win the longest races and he has the right aggressive approach for an uncontrollable race like this. Even if it comes down to a battle between the best climbers, he should be up there and we wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be one of the very best. Furthermore, many tend to forget that he is actually pretty fast in a sprint too so he can win even if he has a few riders for company in the finale. Poels has already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and he could make it two big one-day wins in Rio.
If it comes down to a battle between the best riders, we will put our money on Chris Froome. The Brit is the best climber in the world and this race should be hard enough for him to make a difference. He may not have a very strong track record in one-day races but this course is so tough that it will be more about the legs than team tactics. If the best teams can control the race, the steep part of the final climb is so brutal that it will be very hard to follow Froome if he makes one of his trademark accelerations. If he gets a small gap, he has more power than anybody else on the easier gradients near the top and he is better in the flat finale than the skinny climbers.
The big issue is of course whether Froome has recovered from the Tour. However, he ended the race on a much better note than he has done before. He was very strong in the third week and it seems like he won the race without having to go deep at any point in the mountains. In fact it looked like he won the race by riding at 80% and he clearly held something back with Rio and the Vuelta in mind. The big challenge will be for the Brits to control the race. If they manage to do so, Froome is our favourite to win.
Esteban Chaves hasn’t raced since the Giro and so no one has been talking about him. That’s probably a big mistake as the Giro runner-up is probably the best card in a very strong Colombian team. He has flown under the radar and so won’t be too heavily marked and Colombia have so much firepower that they can send almost anyone into a strong group in the finale. Chaves will be ready to grab such on an opportunity and there is little doubt that he is on fire. In the build-up to the 2016 Giro and 2015 Vuelta, he trained in Colombia and didn’t do any racing to prepare. On both occasions, he arrived at his big goal in outstanding form so he is probably in excellent form when he lines up in Rio. Chaves has proved that he is one of the best climbers in the world and this kind of long race of attrition suits him well. He can handle the heat, he has freedom and he is reasonably fast in a sprint. Overall Chaves is a great candidate for Colombia.
The same goes for Sergio Henao. The Colombian has had so many setbacks during his career but he has really stepped up his level in 2016, underlining the huge potential he showed in his early years. He was maybe the strongest rider in Paris-Nice, he was the best in Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he would have been a strong contender in the Ardennes if he hadn’t been pulled out on the eve of the race. In the first two weeks of the Tour, he was one of the very best and he has now firmly confirmed that he is one of the elite climbers.
Henao was clearly tired at the end of the Tour and so everything depends on his recovery. However, he has often come out of grand tours in good form and he has a proven track record in long one-day races like this. Just like Chaves, he won’t be too heavily marked and he will be one of the riders that Colombia will look to send up the road. In a strong group in the finale, he could very well be the best and with his fast sprint, he has several options.
Daniel Martin is one of the best riders in the world for the hilly classics so he is a natural favourite for this race. The Irishman knows how to peak for the day and make a well-timed move and it is no coincidence that he has won both of the hilly monuments. On paper, this race suits him really well. He is strong on short climbs and his move to Andorra has made him improve a lot on the long climbs too. This year he has reached a whole new level in the high mountains which was evident at the Tour.
Martin was clearly tired at the end of the Tour and he was not at his best in San Sebastian. However, he has so many weapons that he doesn’t have to be at 100% to win this race. We doubt that he will win a battle with the favourites but he won’t be afraid of attacking. No one will mark him too heavily and if he is in the right group in the finale, his lethal sprint makes him very dangerous.
Alejandro Valverde is the obvious favourite for this race but it will probably be hard for the Spanish captain to win. As said, the race will be hard to control and Valverde won’t get any freedom at all. To win, he has to stay with the best in a battle between the favourites and then emerge as the fastest in the sprint. It won’t be easy for him to keep up with the likes of Froome in such a tough race even tough he was clearly riding well at the end of the Tour. He didn’t look to be at 100% in San Sebastian either and due to his status, everything has to fall into place for Valverde to win. Nonetheless, he remains an obvious threat as he will always be the fastest in a sprint.
Vincenzo Nibali leads the Italian team but the Giro champion will be heavily marked. He needs to ride away alone to win so Italy’s best card could very well be Fabio Aru. After his bad day in the final week of the Tour, he has flown under the radar so he could very well get into a strong group in the finale. Due to his bad day, people tend to forget that he was actually flying in the third week so he could easily turn out to be the best in such a group. Everybody knows that he is one of the best climbers but he has to arrive alone to win the race.
Bauke Mollema won Clasica San Sebastian and so again proved that he always comes out strongly from the grand tours. However, that win could make him a bit more of a marked man in Saturday’s race and he won’t necessarily be given the freedom that he needs to win. On the other hand, he has proved that he can match the best on the climbs so he may even try to come out on top in a battle between the best. He has clearly recovered well from the Tour and he can beat just about anyone in a sprint.
Richie Porte is the second best climber in the race but we doubt that he has the motivation to do really well here. The Tour was his big goal and history shows that he often disappears completely as soon as his big objective is over. He already seemed mentally fatigued in the third week of La Grande Boucle and the Clasica San Sebastian confirmed that he is no longer at his best. On the other hand, Porte is such a great climber that he will always be a contender. Furthermore, he has flown under the radar so he could be allowed to join a late move in the finale.
As said, Vincenzo Nibali leads Italy but it will be hard for him to win the race. He is an excellent climber and he was clearly getting closer to his best in the second half of the Tour. However, he was evidently not at 100% and even though it has always been his goal to peak for this race, it will be hard for him to reach the outstanding form that he needs to win. He will be heavily marked so he has to drop the favourites in the finale and as he can’t sprint, he needs to arrive alone. That won’t be easy but Nibali has the tactical ingenuity to maybe find an opening, especially in the flat finale which can be difficult to control if a handful of riders are together.
Adam Yates in the British back-up plan and this is a race that suits him really well. He can handle the long races, he is a great climber, he is fast in a sprint and he loves these climbs that are not too long. However, he was clearly tired at the end of the Tour and he wasn’t at his best in San Sebastian. On the other hand, he will be the rider that Great Britain sends up the road and if he has recovered from the strains of the Tour, it’s not impossible for him to win from a strong group in the finale.
Rigoberto Uran is the reigning silver medalist and on paper this course suits him much better than the one in London. On paper, he is probably the Colombian leader as he has a strong track record in one-day races and is fast in a sprint. He has been building form for this race but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like he has timed it perfectly. He didn’t shine in Poland and his attack in San Sebastian was easily neutralized. He won’t win a battle between the favourites but if can get into a group in the finale, he has such a wide array of weapons that it’s not impossible for him to win.
Finally, we will point to Rafal Majka. Everybody knows that the Pole just gets stronger and stronger as the season goes on. He may not have ended the Tour in the same outstanding form he did in 2014 but he was still one of the best in the third week. He won’t be very heavily marked so he will try to join the moves that go a little earlier. As said, these attacks are likely to stick and so Majka could very well turn out to be the best climber here. Unfortunately, he isn’t fast so he needs to arrive alone to win the race.
***** Joaquim Rodriguez
**** Wout Poels, Chris Froome
*** Esteban Chaves, Sergio Henao, Daniel Martin Alejandro Valverde, Fabio Aru
** Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, Adam Yates, Rigoberto Uran, Rafal Majka
* Romain Bardet, Diego Rosa, Miguel Angel Lopez, Rui Costa, Rein Taaramae, Nicholas Roche, Steven Kruijswijk, Julian Alaphilippe, Geraint Thomas, Ion Izagirre
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