With less than a year to go until the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a select group of cyclists from 20 countries flew out to Brazil earlier this month for the official road cycling test event.
The race was one of 45 test events happening in the coming year as the city prepares for this huge undertaking and served as a dress rehearsal of sorts for both athletes and organisers.
While there was no women’s cycling event, Olympic hopeful Tiffany Cromwell was invited to join the Australian delegation to test ride the courses and report back.
During the test event, the men’s race was won by Frenchman Alexis Vuillermoz and only half the peloton finished.
“You know, it looked difficult on paper, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be quite this hard,” commented Tiffany Cromwell in an interview with Ella CyclinTips. “It was exciting to go. It made everything a bit more real but it made me realise that there is a lot more work to be done between now and then, if I go.”
Gaining a huge advantage
For the organisers, the police and everyone involved, these test events are key to making sure everything will run smoothly when the Olympic Games kick off on August 5, 2016. For national federations and its athletes, to be able to actually see the Olympic courses and watch a race play out, is hugely valuable in making rider selections, planning logistics and coming up with an effective race strategy.
“Australia, like many nations, had a huge interest in going because it is such a tremendous advantage to see the course beforehand and to test out the travel and time zone change and weather conditions. It also allows us to tailor our training and preparations as we build up to the Olympics,” explained Cromwell.
“At the last minute, Australia decided to take a female rider over and I jumped at the opportunity. You can’t say no to these kind of opportunities,” continued Cromwell. “Personally, now I know exactly what I need to do in terms of training and I know in what areas I need to be good not only to get selected but also to be a medal contender.”
Starting and finishing at Fort Copacabana, the Olympic road course will cover 130.3 kilometres as it passes through the famous Ipanema, Barra, and Reserva Beaches and loop around two circuits.
“By first impressions, it is a really difficult course. We were expecting a tough course but actually seeing it, it surprised a lot of people that were there,” Cromwell commented.
The first circuit, the Grumari Circuit, features two climb as well as a two-kilometre cobblestone section. The second circuit is hillier with the Canoas climb at the start, then the almost nine-kilometre Vista Chinesa climb and a technical, six-kilometre descent on the way out.
“It’s really a race of two races. The first part is very classics-style: you’ve got some cobbles, some short climbs and a little bit of a technical aspect. And then there is the major climb, which is a really solid climb with technical descend off the climb,” said Cromwell. “I don’t want to give away too much, because being able to preview the course obviously is a huge advantage, but it will be a good battle to finish.”
Potential medalists will have to be able climb really well yet be able to survive the cobbles and classics-like first circuit to even get to the climb. It seems that the course may favor an all-rounder who can rely on good teamwork.
The time trial course is no less technical either. The 29.8km course uses the same Grumari Circuit of the road race, including the 1.2km climb up Grumari Road and the cobbles.
“The TT has got cobbles, a pretty steep climb, long flat and rollers. Not your usual time trial. There are number federations that have spoken up about the cobbles so whether they keep them in or not, we’re not sure,” said Cromwell, who will not be targeting the time trial herself, but rode the course to provide feedback for other aspirants. “The cobbles create a huge chance for crashes, mechanicals, punctures and for the Olympics you don’t want it coming down to luck but rather a game of strength.”
Australian Olympic team selection
After this little taste of the Rio Olympics, Cromwell is craving for more. But at this point, selection is anything but certain.
“[Selection] is hugely up in the air still. Olympics is so cutthroat. Olympics has a lot of different aspects to looks at. A lot of the funding is determined by [the likelihood of winning] medals. So obviously, they want to look at where the best chances of winning those medals lie. For me personally, I know I’m in the mix of the riders they’re looking at but Australia has lots of strong riders,” said Cromwell.
“I have been very consistent across the board but I’m still not regularly podiuming or getting results, and if you look at a lot of the Australians, we are all pretty similar in that so that leaves it all very open,” continued Cromwell. “As an athlete you need to keep threading on your toes, keep pushing, keep striving. You need to keep that drive to push yourself farther and harder to show that you deserve that spot.”
Now that she has seen the course, however, Cromwell is more determined than ever. She missed out on team selection for London so everything is riding on this coming year.
“Now that I have had a little taste of Rio, I want this even more. It makes me hungry to go back and to represent Australia. I want to be there and give it absolutely everything I can,” said Cromwell.
With the excitement come jitters, too.
“It does make me a little bit scared. I just know that it is going to be a really, really, really hard race,” said Cromwell. “That being said, that is what I thrive on –the harder, the better. I know the challenges that lay ahead. This scares me a little bit but also drives me.”
Top medal contenders
Aside from knowing how to prepare for the race, Cromwell now also knows who to watch out for.
“There are a few I can put names to already,” she said. “Someone like Megan Guarnier would be a massive threat on this course. I think the American team in general will be one of the strongest there if they work together. Anna van der Breggen, particularly for the time trial. Someone like [Marianne] Vos if we see her return to the peloton and to the 2012 rider she was when she won Giro d’Italia. Pauline Ferrand Prevot, if she decides to put her interest in the road race. Lizzie [Armitstead] can never be discounted.”
“It’s going to be an amazing event, that’s for sure.”
You can continue to follow Tiffany Cromwell’s road to Rio through the coming year in our Road to Rio series, in which introduce you to the Olympic hopefuls and keep you in the loop about interesting developments as we count down to August 7, 2016. In the meantime, you can read more about the Olympics, its women’s cycling history and the courses in our intro here.