Yesterday’s Olympic men’s road race was an incredible, arduous lungbuster of a race that ended with about as happy of an ending as you could hope for. This afternoon’s women’s road race was just the opposite.
The Americans came into the race as the slight favorites over the Dutch because their lineup was so varied. As the men’s race showed, the final circuit of the Rio course is brutally difficult and only climbers could seriously plan to escape over the top intact. Greg Van Avermaet won because he was the only sprinter-ish rider to make it with a leading group, and he won because everyone else with a kick got shredded to pieces by the Vista Chinesa. The United States’ Megan Guarnier and Evelyn Stevens are both sprinty climbers, but the race proved too difficult for both of them.
Dutch leader Marianne Vos also couldn’t hang with the leaders on the climb, and eventually, pure climber Mara Abbott and Dutch all-rounder Annimiek Van Vleuten put what appeared to be an unbridgeable gap between them and the chasing pack. It looked as if Abbott and Van Vleuten were destined to fight it out for gold and silver after the descent. Then it all went to shit.
As you’ve probably seen, Van Vleuten’s front wheel locked up, sending her spiraling headfirst into a ditch. The video is startling, but Abbott speeding past her prone body seconds later was almost more unnerving. Van Vleuten fell in almost exactly the same spot as Geraint Thomas yesterday, and altogether, the Vista Chinesa descent has claimed the medal hopes of three surefire medalists (Vincenzo Nibali and Sergio Henao both broke bones falling yesterday).
However, it’s probably responsible for pushing Rafal Majka to a bronze yesterday and keeping Abbott from the medals today. Because Abbott didn’t have Van Vleuten alongside her to keep the trio of chasing riders who summited the climb about a minute behind her, she was forced to dangle out there alone, and hope that her desperate time trialling skills could hold them off.
The solo win is the coolest and most spectacular way to win a bike race, precisely because it’s so difficult. Not only do you have to jump away from the peloton and create separation, you have to maintain your speed alone in the wind while your pursuers can take turns working and drafting. Taylor Phinney descending away from the peloton and soloing into Santa Barbara is much rarer than someone like Tony Martin trying a bold solo escape and coming up 15 meters short of a historic win. The logic of strength in numbers says that you can’t win alone.
And Mara Abbott somehow almost did it. With eight flat kilometers left in the race, Abbott had a shade under 45 seconds advantage on Elisa Longo Borghini, Emma Johansson, and Anna Van Der Breggen. Her frail advantage began to shrink slowly, but she appeared to have the legs to pull it out. The math said she could do it, but the math was wrong.
With 150 brutal meters left, Abbott got swept up by the pack. Van der Breggen opened up the sprint and won, with Johansson trailing shortly behind and Longo Borghini content to coast in for bronze. Four seconds later, Abbott rolled in, her head slumped over her bars.
Abbott had no choice but to go for it, as she was never going to win a sprint against anyone. She was not America’s primary option, but she had the best race. Cycling rarely favors action over patience, but you cannot win by attrition alone. Put another way, any shot at victory comes with an inherent risk of humiliating defeat. If you attack on a descent, there is also the added risk of a high-speed crash. Abbott and Van Vleuten both made aggressive, decisive moves at the pointy end of the race and they would have shared the spoils if cycling made sense.
But that’s not how it works. It’s a chaotic sport, and you don’t always win, even if you deserve it.