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On 10 August 2016, the road cycling time trials in Rio saw two seasoned champions roll back the years. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara won the men’s gold for the second time before retiring while 43-year-old Kristin Armstrong of the USA sealed an Olympic treble.
Cancellara, 35, who was competing in his final international race, matched his time trial gold at Beijing 2008. Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands took silver while Great Britain’s 2016 Tour de France winner Chris Froome completed the podium.
The Swiss rider is regarded as one of the greatest time triallists of his generation. As well as winning both the Tour des Flandres and Paris-Roubaix three times – two of cycling’s most prestigious events – his Tour de France record includes eight individual stage wins and an impressive 29 yellow jerseys, the highest total of any rider never to have won the event. In Rio, Cancellara powered into the lead at the 10km time check. He was then overhauled by Australia’s Rohan Dennis, who opened up a 24-second gap by the second check at 19.7km.
Then, with Dennis forced to change his bike after his handlebars snapped, Cancellara again burst into life in the second half of the challenging Grumari circuit. Completing the 54.5km course with an average speed of 45.255km/h, the Swiss broke down in tears after sealing an exceptional victory.
“This was the last time for me to try to win an Olympic medal,” said the elated Cancellara afterwards. “It means so much to me. After missing out on gold in London and all the ups and downs I’ve had since then, this is just amazing to win the gold today. Against this field, and on such a hard course, we had doubts, but good doubts. There are just no words. To leave the sport at the end of this season with the gold medal is just a perfect way to end my career. It was a big scream on the podium. This was the last big time trial of my life.
“We made special planning for this race. It was important to adopt the right rhythm on the course. I didn’t want to go out too hard, because a one-hour time trial is very long, so you wouldn’t have anything left in the end. We paced it perfectly. I am so proud to win after all the hard work we’ve put into being ready for today.”
Dumoulin and Froome, who were among the pre-race favourites, were left to rue what might have been. The Dutchman, who won the 2016 Tour de France stage 13 time trial in Ardeche, finished 47 seconds off the lead.
Reflecting on his race, Dumoulin said: “I had one goal today, and that was gold. So to not win it, of course, is a disappointment. But to reach the Olympic podium is something special, especially after the injury I had at the Tour de France. When I think about how far I have come, compared to where I was a few weeks ago, this is very nice. This was my big chance to win gold, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Briton Froome was just over a minute behind the winner and sealed a second bronze after finishing third in London in 2012 when his compatriot Bradley Wiggins took gold. That year, Cancellara had to settle for seventh place in the time trial as he struggled with an injury sustained in a fall during the road race.
Froome was delighted to be back on the podium: “I’m chuffed to win another Olympic medal. I can’t be disappointed, especially after the season I’ve had. I gave it everything I had out there today, but Fabian was unbeatable.”
A day before her 43rd birthday, American Kristin Armstrong sped over the finish line to seal her third Olympic time trial gold in Pontal. On a rainy morning in Rio, Armstrong finished the 29.7km course five seconds ahead Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya and 11 secs ahead of Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands in third.
The American, who trailed Zabelinskaya by two seconds at the 19.7km second split, gave her all as she raced through the final 10km. Having made history with her astonishing display, she barely had the energy to celebrate after crossing the line, collapsing to the tarmac.
Her victory made Armstrong the oldest Olympic cycling champion and completed a hat-trick of golds, following her achievements at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. On each of those occasions the Memphis-born cyclist had retired after winning gold, but each time the allure of another title bid brought her back.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” said the American after winning her third gold. “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.
“I knew it was going to be a close race,” she added. “My coach said to me, ‘OK, you decide what colour medal you want to have’. I thought about Mara [US team-mate Mara Abbott], who was passed right at the end of the road race and ended up in fourth, 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.”
Runner-up Zabelinskaya, the daughter of former Olympic champion Serguei Soukhoroutchenkov was caught between contrasting emotions after coming so close to victory: “I missed out on the gold by just five seconds! 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.”