Greg Van Avermaet won the final sprint after six hours of tough climbs and dangerous descents to capture the gold medal in the Men’s Cycling Road Race at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Saturday afternoon, August 6.
The Belgian rider bridged across to the leading group with 70 km left in the 237.5-km race. He had to fight hard to stick with the leaders on the numerous short steep climbs and narrow, twisting descents which punctuated the course. When the trio of Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, Colombia’s Sergio Henao, and Poland’s Rafal Majka attacked 18 km from the finish, Van Avermaet was not able to follow.
It seemed this trio would capture all the medals, but Nibali and Henao pushed too hard on the final descent, crashing so hard they could not continue.
Rafal Majka negotiated the tight turns carefully and stayed upright; it seemed he might be on his way to Olympic gold. However Van Avermaet and Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang made a final push to chase the Polish rider, catching him with only 1000 meters left to the line.
Van Avermaet followed Fuglsang until the final 100 meters, then outsprinted the competition to win the gold medal, with Fuglsang taking silver and Majka, bronze.
“This is the biggest title you can ever have. It is the one big championship,” the exhausted but elated winner told Eurosport.com.
“For me it was not a great course—it was really hard. It was not the best; it was not my favorite. But, I had a really great day and those last ten or fifteen K went perfect.
“A lot of guys crashed on the descent because they took some risks I just kept it safe and stayed focused.
“I knew I had a good spring and in the end, the last five or six K went perfect for me. We caught Majka, and then I was the fastest guy of the two others. Incredible moment!”
The Course: A Challenge for Every Type of Rider
The 237.5-km course was composed of series of hill-studded loops connected by a short straight and finishing with a flat couple of kilometers heading to Copacabana Beach. Part of the route followed the seaside, while the rest climbed narrow roads through tropical rainforest. There were even a few kilometers of cobblestones thrown in to really test the riders.
Much of the road was lined with deep storm drains; riders had no margin for error at the sides of the road. The climbs were narrow, and the descents worse: narrow, very twisty, transitioning from tropical sun to deep shade, and with clumps of leaves which a rider might not see with sun-dazzled eyes but which could definitely bring a rider down.
The course was not unsafe, per se; the roads were dry and reasonably well policed. Still, riders dreaming of Olympic gold could tend to value performance over safety, and the route was certainly ready to penalize any who did.
The first section, the Grummari Loop, was traversed four times. the section contained two short but difficult climbs: the 1.3 km Grummari Climb, with an average grade of 9.4 percent and ramps up to leg-breaking 24 percent, and the Grota Funda ascent, 2.13 km at 6.8 percent, with a maximum grade of 10.3 percent.
These climbs were short but steep; they did not favor pure climbers over power climbers, at least not through the first few repetitions. By the fourth time through, the grades might have seemed extreme for heavier riders.
The second segment, lapped three times, contained a pair of linked climbs: the Canoas/Vista Chinesa ascents. This pair of hills, linked by a kilometer descent, were 8.9 km long in total with an average grade of 6.2 percent but ramps as steep as 19 percent. This was a climb better suited to serious climbers, but not so steep that a good rouleur could not manage it.
The descent from the peak of Vista Chinesa wound through rainforest; it was steep and narrow, a perfect place for a good descender to make up time on the competition—or meet with disaster.
As a rule Olympic road races are won in the later stages; breakaways form, but nothing serious. At Rio, things went very differently, as a very powerful breakaway formed in the first fifteen kilometers.
Simon Geschke (Germany,) Sven Erik Bystrom (Norway,) Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia,) Pavel Kochetkov (Russia,) Michael Albasini (Switzerland,) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland,) opened abut a minute’s gap over the peloton after 25 km of racing, and the peloton seemed content to let this group go.
The peloton sat up and the attackers opened a gap of eight minutes, before the rest of the field decided to reel them in. A few kilometers of strong sidewinds briefly split up the peloton, but by the halfway point the peloton was back as a unit and chasing with determination.
The breakaway started weakening when it hit the climbs of the second loop. Three riders: Greg van Avermaet, England’s Geraint Thomas, and Italy’s Damiano Caruso decided to bridge across to the break with about 70 km left in the stage.
Various chase groups formed and fell apart. one of the strongest was composed of Kristijan Durasek (Croatia,) George Bennett (New Zealand,) Patrik Tybor (Slovakia,) Sergie Chernetski (Russia,) and Primoz Roglic (Slovenia.) Kazakhstan’s Andrey Zeits attacked this group and joined the leaders; the rest never made contact.
The major move of the race came 35 km from the finish, when Italy’s Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali, England’s Adam Yates, and Poland’s Rafal Majka, attacked the peloton and took over the lead of the race. Majka won the King of the Mountain classification in the 2016 Tour de France. Nibali won the Tour in 2014 and could have competed for the overall in 2016, but he instead used the race to prepare for the Olympics. Aru, Nibali’s team mate at Astana, finished 13th. Adam Yates finished fourth at the Tour. This quartet represented a lot of firepower.
It was plain Nibali had planned his strategy and was carrying it out. He had fellow Italian Damiano Caruso in the break, and Aru with him; none of his competition would have team mates except Geraint Thomas, if Adam Yates could make the crossing.
Colombia’s Sergio Henao and Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang also bridged across, making a leading group of ten strong riders. This group never had much of a lead, but its pace was quick enough that though many riders tried to bridge, none were successful.
Final Climb and Decisive Crash
When this group hit the lowest—and steepest—slopes of the final climb, Vincenzo Nibali started attacking. he made repeated digs, eventually shaking off everyone except Rafal Majka and Sergio Henao. Niblai attacked repeatedly to try to escape this pair, but could not; since he is not a sprinter, he realized he would need to open a gap on the descent.
The trio made it halfway down the descent before Nibali and Henao crashed. TV helicopter cameras couldn’t pierce the jungle canopy to capture what happened, but the motorcycle cameras showed Nibali lying on the pavement ahead of Henao, who had fallen across the curb. it looked as though Nibali simply went too fast and lost the rear wheel, and Henaio had no time to avoid the sliding Italian.
The pair was not the only casualties of the final climb: Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte also came to grief on this descent. Thomas was able to finish the race, Porte had to retire.
Rafal Majka, descending ahead of Nibali and Henao, negotiated the corners successfully and hit the bottom with half-a-mi9nute’s lead. it seemed that the Polish rider was on his way to Olympic Gold.
It was not to be. Majka got slower and slower; the chasers cut his lead with every kilometer. Finally with just under five K left in the race, Jakob Fuglsang and Greg Van Avermaet made a serious attack, which no one else could follow.
This pair eroded Majka’s lead until they caught the Polish rider 1000 meters from the line. Van Avermaet followed Fuglsang until the final 100 meters, the launched his sprint. He crossed the line a dozen meters ahead of the Danish rider, earning Olympic gold.
Much More Cycling
There is plenty more cycling ont he schedule at Rio. the women’s road race starts at 10:15 a.m. Eastern on Sunday, August 7, with the women’s and men’s time trials starting at 6:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. Wednesday.
Track cycling starts on August 11 at 2 p.m. and runs through the 16th. BMX racing is scheduled for the 17th–19th, and mountain biking on the 20th and 21st.