Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cycling Update: 2012 Olympic Men's Road Race

In the United States we give a lot of coverage to the Tour de France, but to me nothing beats a one day race.  You never know what will happen.  Each team has a strategy, each rider a role to play, and it's always fun to watch it unfold.  Honestly until I realized he was riding in the Tour de France earlier this month, I thought that Alexander Vinokurov had retired after last season, now he gets to retire with the Olympic gold medal.  No one but Vinokurov and his team saw that one coming. 

Let's break down how Vino ended up winning gold.  This race was all about the English squad and their team leader Mark Cavendish.  He was the favorite coming into the race and so all strategies were built around that.  You have to understand that Cavendish is so good that if this had come down to a bunch sprint at the end, he would likely now be wearing gold. So the Brits decided to go all in on Cavendish.  They never tried to get a man in the breakaway but instead kept them all together working to control the pace and working to give Cavendish a chance at victory.  The Germans with Andre Greipel have the second best sprinter in the world.  They too chose to go for the sprint finish getting no one in the breaks.  They also chose to not assist the Brits in pulling back the break.  The strategy here is that the Brits will wear themselves down and at the end the Germans would be much stronger giving Greipel a better shot.  This was probably the most critical decision of the race.  The Brits really did run out of steam and by the time the Germans tried to help close the gap it was too late for the sprinters. 

The Belgians have what could be the two best single day racers in cycling in Tom Boonen and Phillip Gilbert.  They split them.  Gilbert went with the attack off the front and Boonen stayed home to mark Cavendish and Griepel.  Boonen is a great sprinter himself and very tough at the end of such trying long races.  The only problem with their plan was when Gilbert put in an attack on the front group and was left out all alone.  I'm sure he had attacked thinking he would split the group and take people with him.  Instead he was left out all alone.  By the end of the race when the key move was being made by Uran and Vinokourov, Gilbert had nothing left. 

The Spaniards, Swiss, and Italians didn't come into this Olympics with any sprinters on their teams and so they were looking to gap the Brits early and then put the pressure on to never let it close.  That is exactly what happened.  They were helped by the United States squad who like Belgian had left behind their sprinter Tyler Farrar and put Tejay van Garderen and Taylor Phinney up in the front group.  Tejay actually played a very critical role down the stretch.  At one point when the breakaway group was starting to get a bit sluggish Tejay jumped to the front and drove the group quite hard until they got reorganized.  Looking around the group he must have realized that if they could stay away and keep things together that Phinney would have a good shot as he's a pretty good sprinter.  Phinney did end up in fourth place so it was a smart move by the US squad and actually had a huge effect on the race.  Part of the effect it had was to kill the hopes of the Italians and Spanish in the front group.  They needed the infighting to start so that some of their guys could get away in a smaller group.  The types of riders they had up front needed that group of 32 to get narrowed down to 10 or less to really give them a good shot.  When van Garderen went to the front and was joined by the Swiss to drive the group it dashed the Italians and the Spaniards chances. 

At that point it looked like the kind of race for Fabian Cancellara to win.  His Swiss team was setting a high pace at the front and he's the kind of rider who loves these long tough races and putting in huge bursts of speed to breakaway and win down the stretch.  In fact he had moved to the front and was starting to crank up the pace and put on some pressure when he overcooked a turn and crashed hard into the barriers.  That ended his hopes and too the Swiss teams hopes. 

So with 10km left it was clear the Cavendish peleton would not catch the breakaway but it was also clear that there was no one in the breakaway that had any better shot than any other.  This is when older, really smart racers are at their best and this is why Alexander Vinokurov is tonight wearing gold.  He saw and answered the move from Rigoberto Uran and no one went with them, all looking to each other to pull them back. 

It's easy to forget how good Vino was if you haven't seen him race in a while, he was banned for doping from 2007-2009, but he was always a very smart, very strong rider and has won one day classics before in just this fashion (Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2010).  Once he got to the front with Uran you knew he would be wearing gold and that's just what he is wearing tonight. 

Uran represented Columbia exceptionally.  He and Vino both sat back in the breakaway group the entire time waiting for their moment and they got it.  Alexander Kristoff represented Norway well outsprinting Phinney for the bronze and so you end up with a very unconventional podium. 

I want to mention one other rider and that is Peter Sagan of Slovakia.  Sagan has been the best rider in the peleton so far this year but in the Olympics he was the only guy on his team.  That's a tough position to be in.  Do you go with the breakaways and try to win from the front or do you stay back and hope the big German and British teams will bring things back together?  Sagan chose to sit back and it quite possibly cost him the gold medal.  If he had been in the front group with the way he's been riding this year I don't think anything would have stopped him from winning gold short of a crash. 

I also want to comment on the fact that this is the best race I've ever seen the American men ride on the road in either the Olympics or the World Championships since I've been following cycling.  They played important roles in the race and almost got a medal.  Taylor Phinney is perhaps the most hyped US rider since Armstrong and so it was good to see the 22 year old there at the end giving it his shot.  He'll be back in the Time Trial, shooting for gold.  I kind of feel sorry for Phinney.  He started as a track specialist and in fact was in the 2008 Olympics on the track.  In 2009 and 2010 he won gold in the track world championships in the individual pursuit and was gearing up to take gold in this Olympics, but that even was scrapped from the 2012 Olympics and so his shot at Olympic gold now are out on the road.  He made a great showing today and now with Cancellara potenially out of the time trial it opens up his chances to take a medal there.

1Alexandr Vinokurov (Kazakhstan)5:45:57
2Rigoberto Uran Uran (Colombia)
3Alexander Kristoff (Norway)0:00:08
4Taylor Phinney (United States of America)
5Sergey Lagutin (Uzbekistan)
6Stuart O'grady (Australia)
7Jurgen Roelandts (Belgium)
8Gregory Rast (Switzerland)
9Luca Paolini (Italy)
10Jack Bauer (New Zealand)


  1. HOORAY! What a report! I feel a little lost along the lines of when some ex-NFLers start telling me about why or why not the "Cover 2" worked in particular game, but, more so, it was great to read in such detail what happened in this race Saturday. And most of all, I'm just glad you watched the race.

    I gather that my pestering @NBCOlympics with my Tweets this week coerced them into offering you some deal to be able to watch the games.

    1. Actually I ended up watching a not so legit stream from Flemish television.

  2. This was a great report. The British press was absolutely convinced that Cavendish was going to win, and they spent most of the race telling us that Team GB had played everything perfectly. So when the race ended, they couldn't really explain what had happened. Now I feel like I understand it all much better.