“We knew the descent was treacherous. I looked at that road furniture and thought, nobody can crash here and just get up.” – Chris Boardman.
Just as the men’s race the day before had been overshadowed by crashes on the Vista Chimera, the women suffered the same fate. A late crash had taken away Van Vleuten’s win just a few kilometres from the line, yet the Netherlands still managed to take the gold with Anna van der Breggen.
68 riders started the event, with much focus put on podium hopefuls such as Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) alongside teammates Nikki Harris and Emma Pooley as well as Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) with teammates Annemiek van Vleuten, Marianne Vos and Ellen van Dijk. The focus on Armitstead came from her silver medal success in London 2012, yet also from her sudden reveal of missing 3 doping tests – which was reduced after 1 was the fault of the tester, meaning she could ride at Rio. Also causing controversy was Russian rider Zabelinskaya, who got bronze behind Armitstead in 2012. She tested positive for octopamine and served a doping ban, then was banned by the UCI, yet found herself somehow successfully appealing the decision. The banning of race radios had led to an unfortunate start from the British team, as when Armitstead suffered a mechanical before the first climb her teammate Pooley continued to set a harsh pace at the front of the peloton. After a quick bike change she found herself chasing hard to get back alongside Harris. When she finally caught up, Lizzie appeared to be unimpressed with the lack of help from her. Which is true – one teammate was leading the entire group away from her own leader and the other not helping her chase back.
Lotte Kopecky (Belgium), the youngest rider, was the first attack of the day that managed to get distance the peloton. Slightly too early to stick for a solo attack for the win, yet anything could happen as we saw later on. A Kopecky win would be double success for Belgium, as Van Avermaet took the road race win the day previous. With 100km to go Romy Kasper (Germany) attempted to bridge to her across the 2m39s gap, the peloton a further 2 minutes behind.
The cobbles once more created problems for riders – and again for Australia – as Rachel Neylan suffered a mechanical. On the climb, van Dijk and Bronzini (Italy) managed to breakaway while big names such as Pooley (GB) and Ferrand-Prevot (France) found themselves out the back. Armstrong (US) joined the breakaway alongside Worrack (Germany) and Plichta (Poland) and they found themselves almost 1m30 behind Kopecky, the peloton 20s behind the chasers. Kopecky had a lucky moment though – almost taken down by a worker in the road cleaning away the leaves.
The Grota Funda climb provided plenty of opportunities for counterattacks, while Garfoot (Australia) and Whitten (Canada) abandoned. Canuel (Canada) was also forced off her bike while clashing wheels. Kopecky was finally caught on the Grumari climb, and soon after the chasers were caught by the peloton. Yet with fresher legs combining with a tricky descent, they were soon split once again with 60km to go. Van Dijk and Vos were working hard in the break before Cordon (France) attacked and Vos dropped back.
Under 40km to go, 7 riders managed to form a breakaway by taking advantage of crosswinds with a lead of 40 seconds. Cecchini (Italy), Elvin (Australia), Ferrand-Prevot, Jasinska (Poland), Vekemans, Vos and Worrack. They distanced on the flat, yet were caught a few minutes later. While the cameras focused on those out the back (Armitstead doesn’t favour climbing), Abbott (USA), van der Breggen, van Vleuten and Borghini (Italy) had broken away from the peloton.
With 15km to go, van der Breggen and Borghini had been dropped while they formed a trio alongside Johansson. Ahead, Abbott and van Vleuten were beginning the last descent of the race. Van Vleuten was the better descender of the pair and soon opened up a gap between them. However disaster stuck as she suddenly crashed, landing awkwardly and remaining unconscious. Managing to stay ahead of the trio, this meant Abbott was now in the lead by 40 seconds. With 3km to go the chasing trio were closing down fast on Abbott, and the peloton closing in fast towards them.
1km to go and van der Breggen, Borghini and Johansson had a slowing Abbott in their sights. Painfully, they caught her with just 500m to the line. Overtaking Borghini, van der Breggen launched her attack and saw off Johansson (who had now gained a second silver Olympic medal) to take the gold.
Van Vleuten later tweeted “I am now in the hospital with some injuries and fractures, but will be fine. Most of all super disappointed after best race of my career.” “Knowing this chance is 1 in 4 years doesn’t make it easy.”