The medals have been decided in the men’s road race for the 2016 Rio Olympics and as is always the case, it finished with a complete surprise top three. Greg van Avermaet took gold, with Jakub Fuglsang picking up silver and Rafael Majka rounding out the group for the bronze. This race will be defined by many things, but most notably some very significant crashes.
The first crash of the day happened before the first breakaway, which shows just have frequent they were in this race, with Turkey’s Onur Balkan going down after only 12.5kms, but thankfully he got straight back up and back onto his bike. This was quickly followed by the first big name abandon of the race, with Tom Dumoulin leaving the race. This is likely to avoid any kind of injury and allowing him to focus on the Time Trial, which coincidentally he is one of the favourites for.
The first breakaway of the day came with 218kms to go, and quite surprisingly contained many huge names, including Simon Geschke (AUS), Michal Kwiatkowski (POL), Pavel Kochetkov (RUS), Michael Albasini (SWI). Sven Erik Bystrom (NOR) and Jarlinson Pantano (COL). Included in this group was a former world champion, an U23 world champion and men with many stage wins. With 200km to go to the end, the breakaway had managed to get out to nearly eight minutes ahead of the peloton, and although the main group had begun to speed up they didn’t seem overly worried by the lead.
The second crash came as the group started onto the cobblestones for the first time at around 192km to go, with a second Turkish rider, Ahmet Orkan going down, and looking to have hit his face. The respect for this course was evident early with Chris Froome up at the front during the cobbles to avoid crashes.
At around 168kms to go the mechanical problems began to start, with Greg van Avermaet (BEL) and Bauke Mollema (NED) both struggling with bike issues, and another crash for a rider into a bush and over his handle bars. Not long after this at 162kms to go, the riders started to get dropped, with the more experienced upping the pace and effectively ending the day for the also-rans.
At around 129kms to go, Spain, Italy and Great Britain decided they wanted to bring back the breakaway just to make sure that the peloton had a chance, and once that begin, it felt like the front six were for all intents and purposes done for the day. The return to the cobblestones for the final time was where the first real team attack happened, as for an unfortunate Richie Porte (AUS), who had just lost his chain, the entire Czech Republic team came to the front and attacked to split the peloton wide open.
The first really dangerous crash came with 115kms to go, when Samad Pourseyedi (IRA) crashed head first into a concrete wall, and while he will be sore tomorrow, his helmet could well have saved his life. At the bottom of the descent a solo attack from Steve Cummings (GBR) seemed to come to nothing. Although he didn’t get any distance, he did up the pace of the peloton and in turn began to distance some very experienced riders, including Belgium’s Tim Wellens.
At 82kms to go, the breakaway had a lead of only just over two minutes, which is basically caught in terms of the victory and there was no way they were going to stay out there on the road alone. As the breakaway began the climb, they immediately lost two of their riders from not being able to handle the pace, with Cummings destroying the peloton, he was also in turn catching the break.
As if on cue at 73kms to go, Cummings left the front of the race and pretty much came to a stop, he was done for the day, but the damage was definitely done. Due in most part to the pace he set, climbers such as Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) and Phillipe Gilbert (BEL) dropped out of the back of the peloton. Just as some of the riders started to fall away from the peloton, an attack was launched by Damiano Caruso (ITA), Greg van Avermaet (BEL), Geraint Thomas (GBR), and they were quickly joined by Rein Taaramae (EST) and Sergio Henao (COL). This Five man group was incredibly dangerous and would end up having a huge impact on the finish of the race.
Kwiatkowski and Kochetkov saw their gap drop to just 41 seconds over the second group on the road and just over a minute to the peloton at around 68kms to go. The impact of Cummings driving pace earlier in the race was evident with the peloton dropping to around 40 riders to chase to the two groups ahead. The three groups got down the first descent safely with Spain leading the chase to catch the groups. At 50kms to go, Kwiatkowski and Kochetkov had a lead over the chasing group of 40 seconds and just over a minute on the peloton.
With 45kms to go on and climbing for the second time up the Vista Chinesa, the leading group had been caught and Kwiatkowski was joined by Thomas, van Avermaet, Caruso, Henao and Kochetkov. At 41kms left, the front six had a lead of just about 28 seconds and by the time they hit 40kms to go, Kwiatkowski was beginning to pay for his early breakaway as he dropped back from the lead group.
Seemingly the riders were beginning to see that this race was in the balance as attacks and crashes started to become more frequent on the second descent. First Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) attacked out of the peloton to hopefully make his descent easier. At 38kms to go, two big crashes happened and could have serious effects on the Time Trial later this week. First Nelson Oliveria (POR) went down, crashing into some safety netting which fortunately saved him from any injury, the other crash wasn’t so straight forward. Next to fall was Richie Porte (AUS), and he rose clutching his collarbone, his race was over, and maybe it could also spell the end of his Olympics. Both of these men have a strong Time Trial, and it seems the closer to the race we get, the more open it becomes.
The next attack was launched by Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Fabio Aru (ITA), Andrey Zeits (KAZ) and Adam Yates (GBR) with Kochetkov falling by the wayside in the shuffle. With 34kms to go the leading group was composed of Thomas and Yates (GBR), Caruso, Nibali and Aru (ITA), van Avermaet (BEL), Majka and Kwiatkowski (POL), Zeits (KAZ), Fuglsang (DEN) and Henao (COL). At 29kms to go, the lead group moved out to nearly a minute ahead, and with the race getting away from the peloton who should take up the chase, but the legendary Fabian Cancellara (SWI).
With Cancellara taking up the chase, the gap dropped swiftly to around 38 seconds with Kwiatkowski being dropped from the overall leaders. The lead group seemed to begin to be dropping off with Caruso, the next casualty of the infernal pace. Attacks also happening in the pack with Tanel Kangert (EST) attempting to bridge the gap. With every attack a new rider seemed to be dropped, with Aru and Zeits attacking from the lead group, putting Yates into difficulty, and Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP), Louis Meintjes (RSA) and Chris Froome (GBR) making Alejandro Valverde (ESP) struggle.
The race had begun to break up at around 20kms to go, with mini groups forming everywhere, however when 18kms to go rolled around the lead group contained Nibali, Thomas, Majka, Henao, van Avermaet, Fuglsang, Aru, Rodriguez and Meintjes. With 18kms to go, Nibali attacked again, bringing Henao and Majka with him to a 24 second lead. Thomas took up the lead in the chase group, bringing that deficit back to 15 seconds just before the front three went over the top of the climb.
Just as the chase group arrived at the top of the climb, they were joined by Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) who made his way to the front and is known for his elite descending. Nibali truly had the bit between his teeth throwing caution to the wind and flying down the descent. Henao was just about keeping pace, but Majka was beginning to get distanced. This speed however would come back to bite Nibali as he and Henao ended up in a huge crash, this ended the race for both men, and with Majka taking a solo lead.
At 10km to go, Thomas was another victim to the tricky descent, going over into the ditch. With Majka out on his own, his lead only grew as the chase group seemed all too wary of working together. With 5kms to go, Majka had a lead of around 25 seconds, however he seemed to be really feeling the pain, but without a formed chase group, he became a heavy favourite. With the race getting away from them, Fuglsang had had enough and attacked, with van Avermaet following fast and within 1km the lead had halved with the chase flying.
The three men were the only ones left, and Majka, Fuglsang and van Avermaet would be fighting it out for the medals, and at 1.4kms out from the finish they came together to finish as a unit. Of the three, van Avermaet is the huge favourite in a sprint finish. Fuglsang led the race into the final 1000m as they set up for a sprint finish.
Fuglsang led out and Majka was no match for the other two, with van Avermaet opening up his sprint, Fuglsang tried to follow, but there was only ever going to be one winner. Victory and a gold medal for Greg van Avermaet of Belgium, silver to Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark and bronze to Rafael Majka of Poland.
Overall an incredibly exciting race from start to finish, however one that will be slightly overshadowed by some huge and destructive crashes. It also very much shock up the racers going into the time trial with a few big names unlikely to compete due to injury. An absolutely stunning surrounding to the race, however with so many big crashes it seems Rio went for style over safety. Huge congratulations to the medalists, and a get well soon to the injuries in the crashes.