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American Armstrong pedals into Olympic history

Veteran American Kristin Armstrong capped a stunning return to cycling by winning a third consecutive gold medal in the time trial on a rainy morning at the Rio Games on 10 August.

A day before her 43rd birthday, Armstrong, who was the last to tackle the 29.7km course, sped over the finish line 5.55 seconds faster than Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya. Road race champion Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands finished third to join Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel as only Dutch women to win two medals at one Games in cycling.

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Armstrong hit the first 10km time check atop the 1.3km Grumari climb with a 4.9-second lead over Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy and a 6.32-second advantage over Van der Breggen. Lying sixth at that stage, Zabelinskaya was in the lead by the second check at the top of the 2.1km Grota Funda climb, 2.88 seconds clear of Armstrong, with Longo Borghini third at 6.98sec.

The American finished the strongest in the final 10km, however, pulling back the time she had lost on the second climb and streaking down the final descent to scoop the gold medal. Armstrong, who retired in 2009 to start a family but returned to win gold at London 2012 before retiring once more, barely had the energy to celebrate after crossing the line, collapsing on to the tarmac.

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The third oldest woman in Olympic history to win an individual event, she eventually climbed to her feet and hugged her son, holding up a banner that said “USA STRONG”.

Attempting to describe her emotions after becoming first person to win the same road cycling event at three Olympics, the American rider said: “I don’t have words to describe it. When you’ve already been two times at the pinnacle of the sport, why risk coming back for the gold medal? The best answer I can give is that I can. Today the stars aligned.”

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Armstrong, who is now level with Zijlaard-Van Moorsel on a record three road cycling golds, added: “I knew it was going to be a close race. My coach said to me, ‘OK, you decide what colour medal you want to have’. I dug so deep. I thought about Mara (he team-mate Abbott, fourth in women’s road race), and I gave everything for her in the final 5km. To hear the national anthem on the podium, that’s my favourite part of the Olympics.”

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Reacting to her silver medal, Zabelinskaya said: “I’m very happy, but of course, I am also disappointed that I could not win the gold medal because it is only five seconds to first place. I’m happy to get the medal, anyway. It was hard to know the time differences on the course, so you just push. The rain? I just did my race. You can do nothing about it. It’s very important, because it’s the Olympic Games. It’s important for me, and for Russia.”

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