Gamble to split the pack pays handsomely for plucky Armitstead
If Mark Cavendish discovered on Saturday that sometimes being favourite is a disadvantage, Lizzie Armitstead's relatively low pre-race profile yesterday was one factor that helped the Yorkshirewoman to silver. And another was Armitstead's decision not to rely on her team-mates to bring the winning break back into the pack – but to go with it.
For the first two hours as the race spluttered through intermittent downpours, Britain's four riders were close to the front of the main pack. But as they were not favourites they were never expected to take the race by the scruff of its neck as Cavendish, Wiggins and Co had been virtually obliged to 24 hours earlier.
Just like in the men's race, the crunch moment was on the final assault of the Box Hill climb, albeit shortly after the summit rather than – as was the case for the men – just before it. But if the attacks that ensued on Box Hill marked the beginning of the end of the GB men's medal hopes, instead Armitstead and team-mate Emma Pooley were that much fresher and better able to strike.
In fact, it was only on the second of the Box Hill ascents that Great Britain really started to impact on the race. First Pooley's two drives over the top softened up the opposition and deterred any climbers from making a late move – the best exploitation of her talents in largely unfavourable terrain for a lightly-built rider, and it meant she effectively acted as a springboard for Armitstead.
The other huge difference with Saturday's race was that whereas Cavendish could perhaps have got into the final breakaway – but ultimately did not – after Russian Olga Zabelinskaya charged away and then Marianne Vos and American Shelley Olds followed, Armitstead took the gamble that the leading break was going to stay away, and closed up the gap.
"I saw from the men's race it had been difficult on those really fast roads to pull back the [winning] break so I decided to commit," Armitstead said. "Vos was always going to be the one to watch and I knew that. I followed her around all the time. We had already been in one [short-lived] break [on Box Hill] but it was too early."
It was then that the planets starting aligning for Armitstead, even down to the weather. Before the race started, Vos had described the heavy, if thankfully intermittent, rainstorms as "ideal for me, just like the weather back in Holland. I'll be in my element."
But the appalling weather was no less to Armitstead's liking, given she also races for a Dutch team and has won two top races on the flat, fast roads of Flanders this spring. The first was in a total downpour just like yesterday's, the second was across roughly the same kind of distance and flat terrain.
The Yorkshirewoman was not sure, though, given the ferocity of the pursuit, that the break would stay away. But by that point, she had no choice but to gamble that it would work. "We went from about 35 seconds [in front] to 50 seconds and that's when I thought I'd start committing for good," Armitstead said. "We weren't getting any time checks [to let them know how big the gap was] but once you've committed you've just got to go for it."
The second thing in Armitstead's favour was knowing that both Nicole Cooke and Pooley were in the chasing group, meaning that even if the break did get caught on the long road back to London, the British still had other cards they could play.
"The race panned out exactly the way she hoped it would, a small group that stayed away," said the British road coach Shane Sutton. "The Dutch wanted the same thing and we knew that because of that, we would be in the mix."
"Once the rain started coming down on twisty, narrow roads then that played to our advantage, because the peloton of 40 or 50 riders is always going to be a little bit more cautious, and that will give you a few seconds."
One more unpredictable incident helped seal Britain's first medal: the puncture picked up by the American Shelley Olds who had been part of the breakaway group and had helped maintain the lead for 10km. "When Olds went that totally committed the three of them," added Sutton, "because they knew they were on for a medal, and it swung it in our favour."
And so the three leaders came on to The Mall ahead of the pack. The cherry on the cake, of course, would have been Britain's first gold of the Games, but Vos is the best one-day rider of her generation. A small group sprinting in tough conditions is her speciality and with Zabelinskaya flailing, she had contributed massively to the three-rider group staying away. As Dave Brailsford, GB Team Principal, said afterwards, "No one can begrudge Marianne winning this race as she was phenomenal." As for Armitstead he said: "She took a risk, and it paid off."
And after Saturday's stinging defeat, thanks to the Yorkshirewoman's finely calculated gamble, British cycling is smiling again.
Born 18 December 1988.
2004 Started cycling after talent identification programme visited her Grammar School in Otley.
2005 Won silver in scratch race at junior world track championships.
2007 Became under-23 European scratch race champion, successfully defending title the next year.
2009 In the world championships won gold in team pursuit, silver in Scratch and bronze in points race.
2010 Won two silvers at the world championships, in team pursuit and the omnium, and silver in road race at the Commonwealth Games.
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