With the glorious Copacabana beach providing the backdrop, Belgium’s Greg van Avermaet and Anne van der Breggen of the Netherlands secured victory in the men’s and women’s road races, treating fans to some heart-stopping action.
The opening day of Rio 2016 saw Van Avermaet, a stage-winner in the Tour de France a month earlier, seal the biggest victory of his career. With Rio’s baking heat gradually subsiding as the action drew to a close, the frontrunners in the men’s road race were separated by just a few seconds. Powering his way to the finish line, Van Avermaet saw off the challenge of Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang and Poland’s Rafal Majka, who was caught with just 1400m remaining. France’s Julian Alaphilippe secured fourth place just a little further back.
In a dramatic turn of events, Colombia’s Sergio Henao and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, who had seemed primed to win gold, crashed heavily just 12km from the finish. Nibali had been leading a three-man breakaway along with Majka, and the crash left Poland’s 2016 Tour de France king of the mountains on his own around 20 seconds ahead of the chasing pack. Majka tried valiantly to hold on but, with victory in sight, was unable to keep the powerful Van Avermaet and Fuglsang at bay.
“I was working with Fuglsang and we saw Majka,” Van Avermaet explained afterwards. “We knew it was possible. I knew I had to hang on. I am so happy for gold. Everyone had been saying all week that it was destined for everyone but me."
Earlier in the race, a first attack after half an hour produced a six-man breakaway group. With the group’s lead nearing eight minutes, riders from Great Britain, Italy and Spain started to reduce the gap as the competition’s most well-represented nations began to make their presence felt. Indeed, on the second of three laps around the Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit, midway through the gruelling 237.5km course, the race looked like it would end up as a three-way battle of the heavyweights. Nibali, aided by compatriot Fabio Aru, attacked with 35km remaining to form a 10-strong breakaway, closely followed by the Spanish riders around 50 seconds back.
Heading into the final ascent, Chris Froome attacked in characteristic style with 2016 Tour de France runner-up Romain Bardet struggling to keep up. At the front, however, Nibali kept pushing and looked to be in control alongside Majka and Henao heading into the final 20km. Then, with the trio 20 seconds ahead of the chasing pack – who had been joined by France’s Julian Alaphilippe – the Vista Chinesa descent killed off Nibali and Henao’s chances. The tricky section had already seen Australia’s Richard Porte fall on the previous lap and later claimed Great Britain’s Geraint Thomas, while Alaphilippe narrowly averted disaster.
Ultimately, Van Avermaet, 31, masterfully navigated his way through the various hazards and sealed a victory that reflected his personal motto: “Work hard in silence, let success make the noise.”
Van der Breggen snatches last-gasp victory
The women’s road race on 7 August was similarly enthralling. Following a thrilling climax, 26-year-old Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands succeeded compatriot Marianne Vos as Olympic champion, securing the gold medal ahead of Sweden’s Emma Johansson and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini.
After frontrunner Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands suffered a crash with around 10km of the 136.9km race remaining, Mara Abbott of the USA looked on course to seal victory. However, despite being the sole leader on the flat run in to the finish line, Abbott saw her lead slip in the final kilometres and was caught by the chasing trio with just 150m remaining.
“I focused on my aims and I won the race,” Van der Breggen explained afterwards. “This is the result of years of hard work, riding and training. Annemiek was in front, then I realised that I was in the lead for my team. What a shock!”
The Dutch champion, who turned professional in 2012, had previously trained to be a nurse and even completed an internship in Ghana. Having won the Fleche Wallone in 2015 and 2016 and taken silver in the 2015 World Championships, she came into the race in Rio as one of the favourites.
A silver medallist at Beijing 2008, Johansson became only the third woman to win two medals in the road race but was left wondering what might have been once again: “I was suffering all race,” the Swede explained. “It’d be nice to be another step up the podium, but I did what I could.”
For her part, Longo Borghini was delighted be up there with her: “I want to feel how much that medal weighs. I am shocked. We only just caught Mara Abbott.”
The race began with the youngest competitor on the course, Belgium’s 20-year-old Lotte Kopecky, making an early break. With the riders all together with around 60km remaining, Vos and France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prevot then formed part of a seven-rider breakaway that was eventually wound in by the US team. Abbott kicked on, with Great Britain’s 2015 world champion Lizzie Armitstead among those to feel the pace, though she fought back to finish fifth.
Later, Van Vleuten powered clear of the field with 18km remaining. With Abbott coming across to join her, the duo opened a 50-second lead on the chasing pack of Johansson, Longo Borghini and Van der Breggen. Then, as a few drops of rain started to fall, Van Vleuten came unstuck at the same descent that had proven costly for so many in the men’s race the day before. With Abbott now out in front on her own, the stage was set for the heart-breaking finale that saw her miss out on the medals all together.Van der Breggen’s win makes it four Olympic women’s road race golds for the Netherlands, after Monique Krol in 1988, Leontien Zilljaard in 2000 and Vos in 2012.