The Tour is over and you can be forgiven for feeling that the cycling season is done. Despite the fact that Vuelta Ciclasta San Sebastian is this weekend, one of the best one day races on the Calendar, there can be a real melancholy to late July and early August. We’ve grown used to having world class cycling, live on TV everyday, as well as all the other online and print coverage that comes along with it. But the season isn’t over. We’ve got a fascinating World Championship to come in August, the Vuelta is still on the horizon, and some brilliant one day races like Paris-Tours, Lombardia, and the soon to be World Tour race, the London-Surrey Classic.
In amongst all of those is the Olympic Road Race. We’ve been hearing about this race for a long time, since the course was announced back in 2015. Since then we’ve struggled to pin down who this course actually suits. One of the problems in working it out is that it’s in Brazil which is a bit of an expensive trip for most cycling jouranlists to convince their bosses to send them on, and it’s not like they can piece it together from previous cycling events. For most of us the only way we have been able to work out what type of course it is is completely based on whether anyone can decide if it suits Peter Sagan or not. At first it seemed it didn’t. Then it seemed it might. I think currently the swingometer says that it actually does suit him. That’s probably irrelevant now as it looks like he’s going to go to the Olympics to ride the mountain bike race. He’s absolutely got the hair for it.
So what do we know about the course? Well it’s kind of 2 courses stuck together. The first is tackled 4 times and it’s about 14km long. It includes 2 climbs which sound pretty severe, even if they’re very short. There’s the Grumari which is 1.2km at 7% but with a rumoured maximum of 13%. Following that, the course goes over the Grota Funda which sounds Grot Fun as it’s only 2.1km at 4.5km. So far it’s all very Flanders, a course which suits the strong men who can punch up the short steep climb.
After the 4 times around the first course, the race heads for 3 laps of a second course. This one is the tricky one. The climb on the second course is much longer than those on the first, 8.5kms according to the profile. The climb is in 2 sections, the Canoas and the Vista Chinesa. The combined climb is listed as being 5.7%, but this includes a downhill section, and so the climbing is going to be much tougher than the listed gradient. In fact the maximum gradient is said to be 11.9%. If the first circuit felt like it would suit a Flanders specialist, the second feels much more like something that would suit a rider who’s adept in the Ardennes.
The biggest difficulty here for the riders will be the time at which these climbs occur. The first time over the summit of the Vista Chinesa comes at kilometer 179, and the final time over the summit comes at kilometer 229. The climb is followed by what looks like a hair-raising, technical descent with significant stretches at double-digit gradients. Once that’s dealt with a flat 20km run in to the line. That run to the line will mean that anyone who goes solo down the descent will have to really ride hard to hold off the chasers, however it’s unlikely that many of the bunch will have many teammates to help hunt down any escapee, and if they do, what legs will they have left?
Oh yeah, apparently there are some cobbles somewhere along the route. I’m pretty sure that Brazilian cobbles won’t be anything like those around Roubaix, but the lightweight climbers definitely won’t appreciate them.
So who might win this one? I’ve picked out 14 riders who I think should figure
Froome’s in this list because he’s clearly in great shape, even if that’s the shape of badly operated puppet, following his Tour De France win. He can clearly handle the climbs, and he’s definitely worked on his descending, but his record in one day races is non-existent. Well that’s not quite right. It exists but it doesn’t have any good results on it. Despite that he clearly has this race as an objective, however it seems more likely that the Time Trial will be where he stands the best chance of a gold medal. Froome will be backed by a strong British team that’ll feature another outside bet for the gold, Adam Yates, the winner of the Tour’s White Jersey. His record in one day races already features a win at the 2015 Clasica de San Sebastian, a hilly one day race that shares some characteristics with the Rio course. Never mind that he only won that thanks to Greg Van Avermaart being hit by a race moto, he’s absolutely a contender. Also lining up is Geraint Thomas who knows exactly how to work for Froome, and will no doubt do all he can for his team leader. The same goes for Ian Stannard who is likely to be used up on the opening circuit. The real wild card in the team is Steve Cummings. This is probably not a course for one of his late escapes, but he’s absolutely a man who is worth sending up the road early on.
Ok so he had a really horrible Tour, but he did come into it after winning the Giro. He had a horrible Giro too, until the final rest day where he seemed to regain all his powers before going on to snatch the race on the penultimate stage. With these remarkable upswings in form, we really can’t count him out and he’s a genuine threat when it comes to one-day races. Nibali is a born racer and he’ll fancy going solo over the final climb as very few riders can descend like he can. We saw these skills in action last year, when he won Il Lombardia with a big attack on the final descent. Nibali will be ably supported by breakaway machine, Alessandro De Marchi and the emerging climbing talent, Diego Rosa. He’ll also have Fabio Aru with him, but I wouldn’t put money on him offering much support. Aru’s a potential winner of the race in his own right, and I doubt he’d surrender his own ambitions for his team leader.
In terms of the number of potential winners, France’s team for the road race is probably has the highest percentage. The big problem will be in working out how to use their riders. It’s easy to say they should all just sit tight and see who’s got legs at the end, but someone has to go and fetch bottles. The riders in question are Warren Barguil, Thibaut Pinot, Julian Alaphilippe, and Romain Bardet. Team leadership hasn’t been confirmed but it looks likely that Bardet will have that honour, thanks to his second place finish, and stage win, in the Tour De France. If France can take multiple riders deep into the race then they will be in a great position. An attack by any one of Bardet’s helpers would be a serious threat and would need shutting down. That gives France the chance to have other teams use up their men in pursuit, or sit tight and hope that, whoever the attacker is, they don’t quite have the legs.
Like Nibali, Valverde is a true racer who is totally suited to one-day events. His one day pedigree includes winning the last 3 editions of La Fleche Wallonne, as well as 3 editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and 1 at Lombardia. He climbs with the best, he only ever seems to get found out on the really long, high altitude stuff, but he won’t have to go above 800m here. He also packs the best sprint out of most of the climbers who will line up in the race. Despite his past indiscretions, if he were to win, most cycling fans would not find it as intolerable as when Vinokourov won in London in 2012, although in 2016 it really feels like we should be at the stage where the Olympic champion is from a generation untarnished by cycling’s past. That blood bag floating around with Valverde’s code name on it means that the past is still pretty present. The fairytale winner from the Spanish team would be Jaoquim Rodriguez. He has a similar record to Valverde in terms of his one day classics wins, having stood on top of the podium at Fleche Wallonne and Lombardia. Unlike Valverde he’s never won a Grand Tour, with heartbreaking second and third places at the 2012 Giro and Vuelta respectively. Heartbreak also followed him to the 2013 World Championships, where Valverde’s refusal to chase down Rui Costa possibly cost Purito the victory, it definitely meant there would be no Spanish winner. Purito finished the tour strongly, moving up into 7th place overall, so a fairytale end to his career could be on the cards. Rivals until the end, neither rider will work for the other, which is bad news for Purito as the rest of the Spanish team is made up of riders from Valverde’s Movistar squad. Who do you think they’ll be helping?
This pick should really have been Nairo Quintana, but he’s been replaced by Jarlinson Pantano which is not a bad swap, considering his performances in pretty much every breakaway in the final week of the Tour. One of which resulted in a stage win to follow up his previous victory in the Tour De Suisse. It’s possible that Columbia won’t have an out right team leader, so Pantano could easily be given the opportunity to attack the race late on. If it’s not Pantano, then Sergio Henao could be Columbia’s main contender. He had a really strong tour, going under the radar as Team Sky put all their eggs in the basket marked ‘get Chris Froome to win’. Despite being on team duty, he still finished 12th. We never saw him have any opportunity to ride for himself so maybe he’ll aim to make up for that in Rio. The Columbian firepower runs even deeper with Esteban Chaves also in the team. He’s been quiet since narrowly missing out on winning the Giro D’Italia, but he has the Vuelta Espana in his sights. This race could be a little bit early for him if he wants to be at his best in the final week of the Vuelta, but don’t underestimate the allure of a gold medal. Miguel Angel Lopez will probably be the Columbian on bottle duty, alongside Rigoberto Uran who will be targeting the Time Trial 4 days later.
The Best Of The Rest
You can get 18/1 on Ilnur Zakarin of Russia taking the gold medal. Not a bad bet after his stage win in the final week of the Tour. Not a bad bet if he was allowed to compete. Owing to the ongoing doping problems in Russian sport, Zakarain won’t be allowed to compete, that’s down to the fact that he has already served a doping ban, back in 2009 when he tested positive for an Anabolic Steroid. No Russian athlete who has served a doping ban will be taking part in the Rio games. So who else is there? Ireland’s Dan Martin could be a big factor in the race. He had his best tour to date and only really seems to suffer on the biggest of mountain stages. The climbs here look right up his street, and as a winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he really has the pedigree for this one.
Rui Costa is another rider who could go well. Never strong enough to contest the GC in a Grand Tour, Costa is better suited to the hillier one day races. He doesn’t win often, but he did take the biggest prize of them all when he won the World Championships in 2013. He was another rider who seemed to be getting stronger during the third week of the Tour, despite only getting a combativity award to show for his troubles. Not the fastest of finishers, he’ll probably need to come to the line on his own if he wants the gold.
Wout Poels probably deserves the gold for his incredible efforts at The Tour De France. His strength and form are not in doubt, and he’s got a decent sprint finish. He won Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year as his talent finally came to the fore. He’s a smart rider and I wonder how much the Sky boys in the British team would do to stop him winning? Not a lot I suspect.
Staying in the low countries, my final pick is GVA, Greg Van Avermaart. He had an incredible Tour De France, having taken the stage and yellow jersey in Le Lorien. A faster finisher than anyone else I’ve listed, the first circuit’s steep hills are suited to his strengths, the longer ones on the second circuit should see him at his limit, but with a good chance of hanging onto the wheels.