We are just two weeks away from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and the excitement is building. Federations around the globe have submitted their final rosters to the Olympic Committee and athletes everywhere are spending the coming weeks dotting i’s and crossing t’s for this pinnacle event of our sport.
We’ll be talking about today’s Olympians a lot in the coming weeks but before we do, let’s pedal backwards in history and take a look at the winners of the past Olympic Games.
Women’s Cycling at the Summer Olympic Games:
While men’s bike racing has been a part of the Olympic Games since the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, women’s cycling events weren’t added until 1984.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, USA, saw the addition of single women’s event, the road race, won by American Connie Carpenter.
Women’s track racing events were added in 1988, and the women’s individual time trial was added only as recently as 1996.
Fun fact: the 2012 Summer Olympics in London marked the first Games with an equal number of cycling events for men and women.
Past Winners: 2000 – 2012
2000: Leontien Zijlaard (Netherlands)
Leontien van Moorsel (then Leontien Zijlaard) burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and soon became Jeannie Longo’s main competition.
By the age of 22, as she headed to her first Olympic Games in Barcelona, Van Moorsel was already a three-time world champion on the road and the track.
Reigning world champion and fresh of a win at Tour Féminin, Van Moorsel was a favourite for a win at the Barcelona Games.
But her Dutch teammate, Monique Knol was the defending Olympic champion and was equally driven to win the race. As such, teamwork was lacking and ultimately, neither woman won. Knol did walk away with the bronze medal.
That following year, in 1993, Van Moorsel successfully defended her Tour Féminin win and the world championship title, but was absent from competition for the next three years –including the Atlanta Olympics –as she struggled with anorexia and bulimia.
She overcame her eating disorders and returned to the top of international competition in 1998, when she medalled twice UCI World Championships in Valkenburg (Gold in the time trial, silver in the road race). She also earned silver in the individual pursuit at the track world championships that year.
2000 would become Van Moorsel’s golden year. Her 2000 Sydney Games started off high, breaking the world record on the way to winner the gold medal in the individual pursuit on the track. She’d also win the silver medal in the points race before turning her attention to the road, where she won both the road race and the time trial.
In the next four years Van Moorsel would continue to be one of the best female cyclists, adding three more world championship titles to her palmares as well as a world hour record. In October 2003, Van Moorsel set a new world hour record of 46.065 kilometres, a record that would stand until 2015.
In 2004, Van Moorsel was set to retire and wanted to do so at a high note. At the Olympic road race in Athens, however, Van Moorself crashed hard, bruising her neck, hip and shoulder and her appearance at the time trial three days later was put in question. But Van Moorsel did not only show up, she dominated, winning the time trial by over 24 second.
And with a bronze medal in the individual pursuit, Van Moorself closed out her career with a total of six Olympic medals, nine world champion titles and 21 national titles.
2004: Sara Carrigan (Australia)
A product of the High School Sports Talent Search, Sara Carrigan started cycling at the age of 15, and saw some success as a U23 rider in Europe, winning the U23 races at Thuringen Rundfahrt, Trophee d’or Feminin and Tour de Snowy.
Carrigan won Australian National Time Trial Championships in 2002 and 2003, and experienced her biggest international career win yet when she won the UCI World Cup race in Geelong.
Going into the 2004 Athens Games with legends like Leontien Van Moorsel, Judith Arndt and Nicole Cooke, Carrigan wasn’t exactly a race favourite but smart and courageous racing earned her the gold.
When the peloton finally split on the penultimate lap, Carrogan bridged over to the breakaway to join fellow Australian Oenene Wood. At the start of the final lap, Carrigan broke free from the group on with only Germany’s Judith Arndt willing to chase her down. The pair stayed clear until the end, where Carrigan out sprinting Arndt for the line.
Carrigan would go on to medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and add several more national medals to her palmares as well before retiring from racing following the Beijing Olympic Games, where she finished 38th.
Today, Carrigan coaches athletes and is a member of the ‘Sport and Technical Committee’ of the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
2008: Nicole Cooke (Great Britain)
Nicole Cooke is considered a true trail blazer for women in cycling, who set many historic firsts throughout her career.
Cooke started cycling as a child and in 1999 became the youngest British national road race champion ever when she claimed the title as a 16-year-old. She would claim that title nine more times before retiring.
She would trade the national stripes for the rainbow stripes when she became the junior world road race champion a year later, given Britain its first gold medal at a world road racing event for 18 years.
The next season Cooke followed this up with three addition junior world titles in the mountain bike, time trial and road races. That year she she also claimed three additional senior world titles, becoming the British National road racing, mountain bike and cyclocross champion.
2002 marked her first year as a professional rider and continued to build up her palmares, making a name for herself as the best young rider. She won the road Race at the Commonwealth Games and took gold at national championship road race again.
In 2003, at still just 20 years of age, Cooke became the youngest winner of the World Cup series at 20 and finished her season with a bronze medal at the World Championships.
With the 2004 Athens games looming, there was no doubt that Cooke was Britain’s best bet for a medal on the road. She’d become Britain’s first ever grand tour winner by winning the women’s Giro D’Italia,and was national champion yet again. But she came up short, finishing 5th in the Athens road race.
All her focus was now on 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
In the meantime, Cooke’s trophy chest continued to grow. World Cup wins, national titles, medals at the world championships and Commonwealth Games — everything building up to Beijing.
The growth and depth of women’s cycling was apparent and the race was hard fought. But in the end, Cooke outspinted her fellow breakaway riders to claim the gold.
Weeks later Cooke went on to win the World Road Race Championships, becoming the first cyclist to achieve the historic double of Olympic and World Champion in the same year.
Cooke represented Great Britain again at the 2012 Olympics in London, where her teammate Lizzie Armitstead brought home the silver medal.
Cooke’s career, however, was anything but easy. She had o overcome many more obstacles than just her competitors to achieve what she has. As such, she has been outspoken about gender disparities throughout her career, and continues to be a strong women’s cycling advocate in her retirement.
2012: Marianne Vos (Netherlands)
With her 12 world titles, two Olympic gold medals and hundreds of other victories, Vos is one of the most decorated cyclists — male or female — of all time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a race she hasn’t won during her 14 year career, and she’s showing no signs of stopping. Especially not now that she is back from a longtime injury, just in time for the Rio Olympics.
The Rio Games will be Vos’ third Olympics, and she hopes to go three for three – a gold medal at each Games, that is.
At the time of her first Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Vos already had 10 national and 4 world titles to her name –elite and junior, on the road and the track. By claiming the world champion title in the points race on the track earlier in the year, she’d become the first woman to have held world championship titles across three disciplines – cyclocross, road and track. And so, the then 21-year-old went to Beijing with high expectations as her cycling-mad country looked to her for a medal.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Heavy rains made for difficult conditions throughout the race and when a group of five riders broke away with 13 kilometres left in the race, Vos missed her opportunity. She led the chase but it was too late, and she had to settle for sixth place.
It was a big disappointment for Vos, but she turned disappointment into motivation as she lined up for another event: the points race. The reigning world champion in the event, Vos didn’t just win the race, she dominated, lapping the field in her golden ride.
In the following four years leading up to the London Olympics, Vos won four consecutive cyclocross world titles and, frustratingly, four consecutive world championship road race silver medals as well.
The only thing missing from her trophy chest was an Olympic gold medal on the road, and London was going to be the place to do it.
She had enjoyed dominant performances all 2012 season until she had a bit of scare. She got crashed out by a motorcycle during the Valkenburg Hills Classic at the end of May and fractured her collarbone. Vos was out for nearly a month, but returned in time for the Giro Donne, where seemingly unaffected by the time off, she won five stages and the general classification.
She was in prime form going into the London Games and the absolute race-favourite. Once again, the race was held in terrible condition as rain dumped from sky. But that wasn’t stopping the Dutch team from making the race hard from the gun, firing attack after attack.
Vos made her move on Box Hill, the most decisive feature on the course, and only Great Britain’s Lizzie Armistead and Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaia were able to follow her. The trio worked hard and gapped the peloton quickly. Vos went for the sprint early and beat Armitstead by a mere wheel-length, and Zabelinskaia by a few seconds.
The Dutchwoman was unstoppable in 2012 and would add another road world championship title to her name atop of the Cauberg just weeks after her London performance to round out her golden year.
By now, Vos is a two-time Olympic champion and 12 time Elite world champion. Going into Rio, she is once again one of the race favourites.