It’s been a year to the date since the women’s peloton battled for Olympic gold in the challenging and treacherous Olympic road race course in Rio de Janiero.
The nail-biter of a race saw defending Olympic champion Marianne Vos ( Rabo-Liv, the Netherlands) become a domestique, Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-AIS, the Netherlands) out-climbing all other competitors before scarily crashing out of a winning position, and Mara Abbott (Wiggle-High5, USA) soloing to the line in the TT of her life before getting caught at the line by a trio of chasers.
Excitement, drama, shock, heartbreak and triumph –this race had it all and continues to be a much-talked about spectacle.
“Everyone I encounter shares with me how they experienced the [Olympic road] race. It’s like everyone – fan or not – watched that race. That it had been so exciting I didn’t even know until I watched the replay,” eventual race winner Anna van der Breggen told Ella CyclingTips.
Even UCI Vice President Tracy Gaudry, who had witnessed the race from the lead car, was impressed.
“It was such an exciting race. It was dramatic. There was something happening all the time and it was an exceptionally hard-fought race,” Gaudry told Ella CyclingTips. “It just shows the professional level of women’s cycling and I’m really proud to see the development, having been around for such a long time.”
So on the first anniversary of the event, we invite you to once again enjoy one of the best race we’ve ever witnessed in women’s racing, while looking at where the main protagonists are now.
Rio 2016 Olympic road race top 5
1. Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv, The Netherlands)
2. Emma Johansson (Wiggle-High5, Sweden)
3. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5, Italy)
4. Mara Abbott (Wiggle-High5, USA)
5. Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans, GB)
How the race unfolded
At 12.15 p.m. on August 7, 2016, 68 women set off from the start line in Rio de Janeiro for a race one of the most challenging road race courses the Olympics have ever seen. The 136-kilometre race consisted of two circuits which included several steep climbs and a two-kilometre cobbles section the peloton would traverse multiple times. In all accounts, the race would be determined on the final climb, either up it or down the dangerous descent.
Knowing what was in store, the race started off cautiously with only one youngster daring to make an early move while others preserved their legs.
It was 20-year-old Belgian rider Lotte Kopecky who put in a courageous effort, attacking into the crosswinds and soloing off the front for almost half the race. Germany’s Romy Kasper (Boels-Dolmans) tried to bridge over but she got swallowed up by the peloton on the Grumari climb, 45 kilometres into the race.
Super domestique Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans, The Netherlands) attacked and pulled a small but strong group of riders along with her including Trixi Worrack (Canyon-SRAM, Germany), Anna Plichta (BTC City Ljubljana, Poland), Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-High5, Italy) and Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-RideBiker, USA).
While Kopecky remained off the front, Great Britain’s Emma Pooley (Lotto-Belisol) led the chase to Van Dijk’s group. Pooley then launched an attack herself which saw Australia’s Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) respond as well as Marianne Vos. The trio looked promising but Vos sat up, making it clear that today, the Dutch would not be working for her but for climber Anna van der Breggen instead.
All back together, it was time to fuel up and while Vos busied herself with collecting bottles for her team, she would soon find herself in a potentially race-winning move when she and seven other riders got away and reached the second circuit ahead of everyone else.
It had been Germany’s Worrack who initiated the attack on the flat, windy section along the beach, and she was soon joined by Vos as well as Elvin, Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM, Italy), Anisha Vekemans (Lotto-Soudal, Belgium), Malgorzata Jasinska (Ale Cipollini, Poland) and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabo-Liv, France).
Interestingly, the peloton allowed this dangerous break to get away despite Team USA and Team GB being left out. Without much response from the pack, the break worked hard and extended their lead up to 1:17.
The nail-biting, drama-filled finale
At the start of the Vista Chinesa climb, the break still had over a minute gap on the pack but the climbers like Mara Abbott (Wiggle-High5, USA), Evie Stevens (Boels-Dolmans, USA) and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Bigla, South Africa) were now moving to the front.
With grades up to 19%, the ascent proved to be as devastating as anticipated, and soon Abbott, a two-time Giro Rosa winner and considered the best female climber in the world, surpassed the breakaway riders and climbed on ahead. A new lead group of five riders formed, consisting of Van der Breggen, Abbott, Emma Johansson (Wiggle-High5, Sweden), Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-AIS, The Netherlands), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5, Italy).
A new lead group of five riders formed, consisting of Van der Breggen, Abbott, Emma Johansson (Wiggle-High5, Sweden), Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-AIS, The Netherlands), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5, Italy).
While Van der Breggen was favoured to win, it was time trial specialist Van Vleuten who outclimbed her compatriot and everyone else on the second part of the Vista Chinesa, even distancing Abbott. It was an incredible show of force by the Dutchwoman, who would later say she had never felt stronger during a race.
It all went horribly wrong, however, on the treacherous descent. Van Vleuten overshot a corner and crashed into the concrete curb, flipping over her handlebars and landing awkwardly on a raised gutter. She lay motionless for several minutes as Abbott and the eventual medal winners rode past her.
It would be a good 20 minutes before news came through that Van Vleuten had regained consciousness and had been taken to hospital. She suffered a severe concussion and three small fractures in her lumbar spine. From her hospital bed, she reassured everyone she was OK and mostly disappointed.
The hardest TT of her life
While viewers and racers alike were shocked by the images of Van Vleuten, Abbott powered on as the lone leader.
Abbott now faced the 6-kilometre flat run-in to the finish by herself, while behind her a strong trio was chasing with all their might. Her little body had already been pushed to its limit ten times over in the past 3.5 hours and now the numbers were stacked against her. As the kilometres dwindled down, so did the gap between her and the fierce chasers.
But with just 200 metres to go, Abbott saw her Olympic dreams crumble around her as the chasing trio sped by her in the final sprint for the finish.
Van der Breggen opened up her sprint really early, and successfully held off her breakaway companions.
Johansson won win her second Olympic silver medal. Bronze went to Longo-Borghini and nothing but heartbreak was left for Abbott who had gotten so close.
Where are they now?
One year later, the 2016 Olympic road race remains one of the most talked about women’s races. While Abbott and Johansson have retired from racing, Van der Breggen has been nothing short of dominant this 2017 season. Riding for Boels-Dolmans, Van der Breggen most recent won women’s cycling’s only grand tour, the Giro Rosa. After securing the pink jersey on day one, the team never let the pink jersey go and Van der Breggen lead for 10 days straight. Previously, Van der Breggen also won the women’s Tour of California and all three Ardennes Classics.
Longo Borghini, too, is enjoying a career-best season. The 25-year-old Italian is always in the pointy end of the race, either as part of the winning break or going off solo as she did when she won the WorldTour opener, Strade Bianche. Following her win in Siena, Longo Borghini won the Italian national time trial and road race titles, consistently appeared on the podium at the 10-day Giro Rosa, and was the third in the renewed La Course.
Following her horrific crash, Van Vleuten astonishingly returned to racing just a month later, and has been stronger than ever before. Van Vleuten says her Rio performance has given her nothing but confidence in her own climbing skills, and demonstrated just how strong she has gotten with an impressive performance at the 10-day Giro Rosa and victory on top of the Col d’Izoard for La Course.
How will you remember the 2016 Rio Olympic Road Race?