Van Avermaet takes Gold in Rio after a thrilling race
Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium) has claimed cycling’s first gold medal of the 2016 Olympic Games, outsprinting Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang and Poland’s Rafal Majka in the dramatic conclusion of one of the most unpredictable Olympic men’s road-races of the last few decades.
Using his well-honed Classics skills, the 31-year-old rocketed away from fellow breakaways Fuglsang and Majka in the finishing straight on Copacabana beach to net the gold by several bike lengths from the Dane. Whilst Majka, visibly exhausted, nonetheless took the bronze, France’s Julian Alaphilippe then brought in the first chase group and netted fourth after a tenacious, lengthy pursuit of the leading trio, with Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez just outsprinted by Alaphilippe for fifth.
For Van Avermaet, gold in Rio continues a brilliant summer in which the Belgian has already won a stage of the Tour de France, led the race and wore the maillot jaune for three days.Earlier this year, Van Avermaet also took the overall victory in Tirreno-Adriatico and the opening season Belgian Classic of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Nothing, though, can compare to winning an Olympic gold.
The Belgian’s victory in Rio, though, only came at the end of a tumultuous, hugely fluid race which only began to be decided in the final 40 kilometres. At this point, the last survivor of the early break of the day, former World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) was caught by a strong six rider counter-attack, including Van Avermaet, Sergio Henao (Colombia) and Damiano Caruso (Italy).
On the second last descent of the Canoas-Vista Chinesa loop, Italy considerably strengthened their numbers in the front move as Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali both bridged across to Caruso and the rest. Further reinforcements included Majka, Fuglsang, and Adam Yates (Great Britain), bringing the leading break up to an 11-man group. With three riders, the Italians, though, were the most strongly represented and they promptly moved Caruso to the front.
Having almost singlehandedly established a 30 second gap as the leading group of 11 hit the foot of the Canoas-Vista Chinesa loop for the last time, Caruso, his job done, dropped back. But although Aru seemed to waver on the relentlessly rising climb, his compatriot Nibali was in his element and three kilometres from the summit of the Vista Chinesa, the Italian roared out of the breakaway. Only Henao and Majka were strong enough to follow.
The leading three stormed over the summit of the Vista Chinesa with a gap of around 15 seconds, with Nibali providing much of the traction. However, just as it seemed that the fate of the three medals on offer - although not their order - had been decided, both Nibali and Henao crashed badly on the twisting descent, wrecking their race and medal chances.
Others that fell on the same downhill segment including Richie Porte (Australia) and Portugal’s Nelson Oliveira in the previous lap and Geraint Thomas (GBR). Suddenly, the battle for the first medals on offer in Rio was wide open again.
Majka, having missed the crash that poleaxed Nibali and Henao, ploughed onwards alone as the road flattened out with a 20 second advantage on a group of seven chasers. At this point, with just six kilometres of flat left, it looked as though the Tour de France’s double King of the Mountains winner was now safely en route for gold.
Instead, in yet another twist to this wholly unpredictable race, a sudden counter-attack by Fuglsang, followed by Van Avermaet managed, at the last moment and on flat terrain, to bridge across to an increasingly exhausted Majka. With two kilometres to go, once again the Olympic road-race could go any one of three ways again - Majka, Fuglsang or Van Avermaet.
As the only real Classics specialist of the three ahead, Van Avermaet had the cards in his favour, although at the end of a six-hour, 237.5 kilometre race, nothing is ever certain. As it turned out, his well-timed final acceleration netted the Belgian the seventh cycling gold medal in his country’s history.
“I said before the race, that everything would have to work out perfectly for a medal to come my way,” Van Avermaet said.
“I made it through, but there were some crashes because riders took risks on the descents.”
“You needed to have the legs to be there, either way, and I wasn’t so far off the three leaders [Nibali, Henao, Majka] at the top of the final climb. I kept at it, and then the situation worked out perfectly.”
“I could never have dreamed of winning here. But it’s happened!”