Armstrong and Cancellara roll back the years for Olympic golds
Fabian Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong rolled back the years in the 2016 Olympic time trial events as Cancellara claimed the second time trial Olympic gold of his career, and Armstrong her third.
Like Armstrong, retirement is fast beckoning for Cancellara, whose many achievements in his 16 year career, include a time trial gold medal in Beijing’s Olympics in 2008 and also multiple UCI World Champion titles in the discipline. But Rio represents an outstanding last Olympic victory for the Swiss rider, who at 35 completed the course with a massive 47 second advantage on the Netherlands’ challenger Tom Dumoulin. Cancellara was also one minute and two seconds ahead of Britain’s Chris Froome, for whom history also repeated itself: Froome was also bronze medallist in London’s time trial.
Amongst those disappointed by the result were Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo, just four seconds slower than Froome and forced to settle for fourth, and Australia’s Rohan Dennis, whose performance placed him within contention for a medal at least, but who lost time and concentration when he had a mechanical and bike change midway through the race. Dennis finally finished fifth.
Technique, strength and calculation all proved to be critical for the 35 racers on the 54.6 kilometre Grumari circuit, which had featured as part of the hilly road race a few days before - and where, surely by no coincidence, both Cancellara and Armstrong had featured strongly.
Cancellara was by no means the leading favourite going into the time trial, but his fastest time posted at the top of the first ascent of the Grumari climb, a fraction of a second faster than Dennis, strongly suggested he was back on top of his old top time trialling form.
Or was he? By the second checkpoint, after 19.7 kilometres, Cancellara had suffered an important setback, losing 25 seconds to Dennis and dropping to fourth on the provisional ranking. Dumoulin, despite riding with a wrist injury after crashing in the Tour, rose through the classification from fourth to second, and Froome moved up from seventh to fifth.
By the third checkpoint, however, at kilometre 34.6, Cancellara was firmly back in control, rising to the top of the leaderboard, 18 seconds up on Dennis, 26 ahead of Dumoulin and 33 ahead of Froome. This time, there were no further setbacks for Cancellara, and in the final 20 kilometres, with a huge flat final section into the finish which was certainly to the Swiss veteran’s liking, Cancellara kept on leading right the way through. As fairy-tale endings to cycling careers go, it could hardly get any better for the Swiss star in Rio.
"It’s pretty special, I still don’t really have the words. After the disappointment in 2012” - where he crashed in the road race - “and many other up and downs that I’ve had, and this is my last season, it’s my last Olympic Games and my last chance to do something,” Cancellara said.
"I knew that it was going to be a tough day, a challenging day with Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and all the others. It was an open course for all different characteristics. I have no words. Finishing after 16 years, with the gold, it’s not bad."
Also riding her final Olympics, the USA’s Armstrong collected her third - and last - time trial gold medal of her career in a row ahead of Olga Zabelinskaya (Russian Federation) and the Netherlands' Anna Van Der Breggen.
Armstrong beat Zabelinskaya by a narrow but sufficient margin of five seconds on the wet, windy and challenging 29.9 kilometre course. Van Der Breggen, gold medallist in Sunday’s road-race, finished 11 seconds back in bronze, and 11 seconds ahead of her team-mate Ellen van Dijk.
Armstrong has already retired, twice, in 2008 - to start a family - and again in 2012 - for three hip operations. But her double comeback to the sport has once again paid dividends.
I've probably ridden my time trial bike in the rain more than anyone else out here," Armstrong, watched by her five-year-old Lucas, said afterwards. "So, I kind of tricked my mind and gave myself confidence, and said 'OK, just take it, everyone else has to go through this.' ”
The last rider to start, as defending champion, Armstrong certainly made a fast start, powering through the first checkpoint after 10 kilometres five seconds faster than any other competitor. However, her Russian rival made it count on the Grumari and after 20 kilometres was two seconds up on Armstrong.
Zabelinskaya went on to post the best provisional time of 44:31 at the finish, but there was always the question of whether Armstrong, as the last rider home, could bounce back after her second sector setback. And so it proved, as the American powered across the finish line five seconds faster and equalling, in the process, the record of three road Olympic golds held by the Netherlands' Leontien van Moorsel.
Speaking before the race, the US veteran - by eight years, the most senior of the 25 Olympic participants in this event, and set to turn 43 the day after the time trial - said she thought the route itself favoured her considerably. ”I think this is a really great course. I think it's a lot of fun. I think you have to keep focussed. It's not often that you have to go up climbs that are 20 per cent in pitch, and so that is going to be super difficult for everyone.
"I think the course will serve as the race of truth, and that is why they call it a time trial.” And in Rio, the race of truth proved ideal for Armstrong and Cancellara, for one last time.