The Dutch cyclist Anna van der Breggen took gold in the womens road race as Great Britains Lizzie Armitstead came home in fifth place
She was damned if she did and damned if she didnt. And in the end Lizzie Armitstead did not win the Olympic road race. She ended up 20 seconds from victory, after a competition which ran horribly incorrect before she even rolled up, grim-faced, to the start-line.
The gold medal ran not to Armitstead, who got caught out on some crosswinds with 30 km to go and finished fifth, but the Netherlands Anna van der Breggen. The Dutchwoman won in a thrilling three-way sprint to the line, with Emma Johansson of Sweden repeating the silver she won in Beijing in 2008. In third place was Elisa Longo Borghini, the Italian all-rounder who arrived fourth to Armitstead in the world championships last year. Four seconds behind them was the USAs Mara Abbott, who got caught on the final corner after a valiant breakaway on the last climb.
Van der Breggens team-mate, Annemiek van Vleuten, would almost certainly have ended up on the podium had she not had an nasty crash on the final, wet descent. The same sketchy spot had ended the races of Vincenzo Nibali and Geraint Thomas on Saturday, yet there were no flags out to warn the women. The initial prognosis for the 33 -year-old did not look good, after she appeared to hit the ground headfirst. Dutch media afterward reported she was in intensive care with cerebral trauma and three spinal fractures.
The former British Olympic champion Chris Boardman, commentating for BBC Sport, said afterward the Rio course was too dangerous. He told: Im actually quite angry because I looked at the road furniture and thought nobody can crash here and get up. This was route past technological, this was dangerous.
Afterwards Van der Breggen said it was hard to pass Van Vleuten by the side of the road. We ensure Annemiek at the side of the road; it was very strange because it simply looked not good. That shocked me and I think it shocked us all. It was difficult to carry on from there. Afterwards Ellen[ van Dijk another member of the Dutch squad] said simply do it for Annemiek and I believed yeah, thats right. We took turnings from there and got ourselves into race mode.
Van der Breggen, 26, won after a strong season in which she was ranked fifth by the UCI, behind both of the women on the lower podium steps. She won both the 2015 and 2016 editions of Flche Wallonne, plus the 2015 La Course by Le Tour and the 2015 Giro Rosa. A well-rounded person as well as a top-drawer rider, she took a breaking from cycling in 2011 for an internship in Ghana as part of a nurse programme.
Armitsteads race began poorly when she suffered a puncture at the foot of the first climb, around Barra, a ritzy suburbium out to Rios west which has become home to the main Olympic village. She found herself abandoned by Nikki Harris, her Boels-Dolmans team-mate, whom she had specifically requested as her domestique, a controversial selection ahead of arguably more capable but perhaps less loyal alternatives like Dani King.
She eventually rejoined the peloton, the TV cameras catching what appeared to be some tough terms for Harris. She may have had a few more for Emma Pooley but her second team-mate was busy pushing the pace at the front of the bunch.
Was this an act of disloyalty on behalf of the Beijing time trial silver medallist who came out of retirement for one last stab at Olympic glory? Or, more likely, was it simply innocent ignorance, the lack of race radios means that Pooley, whose lone-wolf tendencies suit her recent switch to triathlon, had no idea her leader had been fallen? The triathlete surely had little to say to Armitstead as they waited for the start on Copacabana.
Pooley afterward said that while she supposed Armitstead foolish for missing three doping exams for the purposes of the whereabouts regulation, there was no particular tension between the two. Either route, by the time the bunch hit the cobbles at the start of the Grumari circuit, Harris and Armitstead at least appeared to have made up, with the former guide her leader towards the front of the group.
The first breakaway of the hard-fought 136.9 km race was not long coming, when Belgiums Lotte Kopecky managed to build up a 2min 37 sec leading with 99 km to go. Over the next 40 km the 20 -year-old was gradually reeled in by the peloton, chased down by the fearsome quintet of Van Dijk, Giorgia Bronzini( Italy ), Trixi Worrack( Germany ), Kristin Armstrong( USA) and Katrin Garfoot( Australia ), the latter two pulling out of the race before the end, along with Pooley, Harris and 12 others.
Every time Marianne Vos made a move, the peloton twitched: though the Dutchwoman is not quite back to her previous kind after an injury-wrecked 2015, her peerless racing nous constructs her a very dangerous competitor. The defending Olympic champion eventually came in ninth but looked on course for success in the late stages of the race when taking advantage of some feisty crosswinds en route to the final Vista Chinesa climb, along with Frances Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, triple world champion, who called Armitsteads missed dope tests shameful.
Asked before the race whether she believed Armitstead should even be on the beginning list, Vos was pragmatic. We were a little bit surprised about her three missed tests. But then she opposed the first one and I suppose she had some rough weeks, shes had some rough weeks and we will see what that does with her, she told the Guardian.
Asked if she thought Armitstead was clean, Vos told: Thats a different deliberation. I think its a bit naive to miss three exams but it doesnt say that shes a doper.
The women were racing on more or less the same course as the men, simply with fewer loop. Though high winds and hazy skies entailed the race was not bathed in quite the same sunshine as the gents enjoyed, they suffered on the same sharp climbs and technical descents forged from the resistant granite boulders which form many of the prominent bornhardts for which Rio is renowned, exemplified by the Sugarloaf Mountain.
The real drama of the race arrived on the final Vista Chinesa climb, which begins with a 10.6% ramp of pain towards the 530 m summit. Van Vleuten and Abbott, a two-times Giro Rosa winner, crested the hill first, with the eventual medallists Borghini, Johansson and Van der Breggen in hot pursuit.
Abbott, who trains at altitude in her native Colorado and works on a farmers market in Boulder to make ends meet in the off season, is arguably the best climber in the peloton but descending is not her forte. Had Van Vleuten not crashed heavily on one of the final corners, the American could certainly have expected to come second to the Dutch star.
But with Van Vleuten out of the race in the worst possible way, it was left to Abbott to do an individual period trial along the coast to Fort Copacabana, chased down by three of the strongest riders on the world tour. A very slight rider who has suffered with eating disorders, Abbott simply did not have the power to hold the others at bay, and they caught her on the final corner.
She rolled in just short of a rostrum placement, a bitter ending to a remarkable solo performance. She was followed by a glum-faced Armitstead, who told waiting journalists she was just not feeling good on a course that did not suit her after many sleepless nights.
She was philosophical about the future. I have to come to words with it. I cant pick up the phone to everybody that doubts me and explain myself. The only thing I can do and the only thing that Ive always done is to ride my motorcycle fast and get my head down and control the things I can control.
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