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Olympic women’s road race: Vos and Armitstead battle with destiny

Marianne Vos took the gold medal ahead of her British rival after a spectacular race.

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday July 29, 2012

In the men’s road race yesterday, most of the field spent considerable energy putting the strongest man out of contention. In today’s women’s road race, the strongest woman did the same to put most of the field out of contention.

Marianne Vos was the winner on The Mall, her orange Dutch national jersey dulled and muddied by the relentless rain. Lizzie Armitstead was behind her, taking Britain’s first medal of the Games. Armitstead made little impact on the Dutchwoman in the sprint – both riders had entered the finishing straight with a legitimate claim to destiny, Armitstead hoping to be the first gold medal for the home nation, Vos wanting to add the Olympic road title to a list of wins which is the equal of anything ever achieved in the sport. Both women had a legitimate claim to the gold medal, but Vos was just a bike length faster.

For an hour, Vos and Armitstead, along with Russian Olga Zabelinskaya and Shelley Olds, before the American suffered a puncture, had dangled 30 seconds off the front of a committed chase from the peloton. It was a pursuit match upon which the whole race hinged, in which neither side gave quarter. As the German and Italian teams rallied behind, the escapees found fresh impetus. And every time the Vos-Armitstead-Zabelinskaya trio pulled out another few seconds, the pursuers redoubled their efforts.

This was 20-20 cricket, compared to the Test Match of the men’s race the day before. While the British men looked to have the race under control for much of the day, their rivals kept chipping away, with groups going stealthily up the road, until sheer weight of numbers off the front led to a slow-motion tipping point in the balance of power. In the women’s race, there were fewer strong teams, with fewer riders at their disposal, and it meant that the favourites were drawn out early, with constant, unpredictable attacking. But in the end, logic prevailed. The strongest rider won.

***

From the start of the race, the tactics of the British and Dutch teams were clear – both were working hard for their respective leaders, although in different ways. Ellen Van Dijk of Holland was an early aggressor – she attacked out of Weybridge, again through East Clandon, again just after the descent of Coombe Lane, then again on the first climb of Box Hill. She was shut down quickly each time, and while the attacks didn’t look effective, they all contributed to the fatigue of Vos’s rivals.

Emma Pooley was visible at the front, chasing attacks on Staple Lane and then leading one of her own after the first climb of Box Hill. As the Brit sustained her effort on the false flats before the descent, the peloton was stretched into a single line. She was caught, but the bunch was clearly approaching breaking point.

On the second climb of Box Hill, Van Dijk went again into the first hairpin, and once Pooley had shut her down, it was Vos who attacked into the third and final hairpin. This time, Armitstead chased. Small, tell-tale gaps were beginning to appear as the group accelerated and slowed.

Over the top, Pooley attacked, shut down by Vos. Then Armitstead attacked, with Vos chasing. With every fresh attack, the group looked less able to respond.

And then Zabelinskaya went for it on the drag down towards Leatherhead. Armitstead and Olds followed, then Vos joined them. Four at the front, and suddenly there was a gap.

Towards London, the pursuit match raged, with the gap holding at 20 seconds, then slowly moving out to 30 and 40. The four at the front were committed to this one bid for glory, while those behind knew that if they didn’t chase immediately, the race was over. Judith Arndt was chasing so hard for Germany that she was causing splits in the bunch. But the escapees were gaining about a second a kilometre – a tiny increment, but an accumulation of gains that would again tip the balance of power slowly towards those at the front of the race.

For almost an hour, the race was a battle of wills between the two groups, a tug-of-war in which one side was pulling just the tiniest bit harder than the other.

When the gap reached 45 seconds, as the escapees left Richmond Park, the elastic was finally broken. The bunch was out of the race.

The awkward conversation about how to share three medals among four riders had been avoided when Olds punctured, and although Zabelinskaya made a half-hearted dig through Knighstbridge, it was clear that she was going to win the bronze medal. It was a two-horse race, between three riders. And in the sprint, Vos was invincible.

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