Rivals team up for the fast show

Britain's front-runners have a bit of history between them in today's road race
  • @stevetongue

At the Olympics there are team and individual events and a few awkward mixtures of the two, including the cycle road racing on display this weekend. Yesterday, Mark Cavendish was Great Britain's main man, with a team of four others working in support. In the women's race today, however, over the same route but comprising two climbs of Surrey's Box Hill in a slog of 140km as opposed to the men's nine circuits and 250km, it is far less clear who is the Queen Bee.

As the women's coach, Chris Newton, put it in midweek: "The general public who may have been watching the Tour de France will have seen how much teamwork goes into making one winner, and to anyone not directly involved in cycling it must seem bizarre.

"It's almost like rewarding a striker in football and the rest of the team getting nothing."

Or, of course, in the dream scenario today, picking up more than one medal. There are two principal British contenders for honours and, as reigning Olympic champion, the older and more experienced of them might expect to be team leader, whom the other members of the quartet would sacrifice their own ambitions to protect.

Yet Swansea's Nicole Cooke has had a difficult time since starting Britain's rush for gold in Beijing, a triumph she found hard to handle. "Who was there to advise me?" she asked rhetorically. "No one had ever done it before. No other British rider had become world number one, won the Giro d'Italia and become Olympic champion."

Unbeatable for nine years in the national road race championship until 2010, the 29-year-old has been placed third, second and sixth since then, behind today's team-mates Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead. Pooley, a Cambridge graduate who came late to cycling, is a medal prospect in Wednesday's time trial at Hampton Court Palace and will be happy to play a support role today, insisting: "I don't have much of a chance in the road race because it'll probably be a sprint and I can't sprint for toffee."

The younger Armitstead, 23, a stereotypical feisty Yorkshire lass, stirred up a rivalry that spilled over into acrimony when she accused Cooke of selfishly going for glory at last September's World Championships instead of helping her back into the race following a crash. Armitstead was the designated team leader by then and almost certainly feels she should be today.

Newton will not make that decision public, although he dropped a hint by announcing that Lucy Martin, the youngest team member at 22, was there as Armitstead's "minder". "We have moved on," Cooke insists of the spat, which is just as well, for in today's race the women will not be able to rely on radios – banned in the Olympics – for receiving team orders. Six staff members will be stationed at various points round the course, holding up boards with coded instructions, but at a crucial point individual riders may have to make a snap decision of their own.

"The tactics are there and every-one will be clear on what they're doing," Newton said. "Just because it's got an Olympic title and it's a bit longer than normal, it's still a road race. In that sense it's business as usual. Once they're racing you can only direct them so much. We'll be in a car with a television [feed] and key people will give information to the riders like you would over the radio. But you can over-complicate it, which is a recipe for disaster."

The Dutch rider Marianne Vos is the best bet for gold. The 25-year-old was world champion at cyclo-cross and on the road while still a teenager, adding the Olympic points race title four years ago. After fracturing a collar bone at the end of May, she recovered to win the Giro d'Italia earlier this month, ahead of Pooley.

Less likely to be on the podium but unique among the 68 entrants is the 39-year-old Canadian Clara Hughes, the only athlete of either sex to have won more than one medal at both Winter and Summer Olympics.

After taking two bronzes for cycling at Atlanta in 1996, she turned to speed skating and won three more medals at three Winter Olympics. A return to cycling followed.

"It's just fascinating how the body's composition can change, how the engine can shift from being trained for [skating] to a 140km road race," she has said. "I think I'm a case study." There are a few of those worthy of attention today, not least in the gaudy GB strip.

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