Mark Cavendish in flying form, British morale on an all time high after Bradley Wiggins' victory in the Tour de France, four out of five riders stage winners in the Tour and an Olympic team regularly touted as the strongest team in the world... how could it possibly have gone so wrong for Team GB at Saturday's road-race?
The short answer to that is that for 85 percent of the race - it didn’t. For over 200 kilometres of the 250 kilometre race, things actually went swimmingly for Great Britain. With virtually no assistance from anyone bar the Germans - and that was limited - the blue-clad GB riders spearheaded the main pack. After eight laps of Box Hill - the crunch point of the entire race - the breakaway of 12 that had been away from the start was pegged back to a minute, a manageable difference.
And that, as the race powered up Box Hill for the final time, perhaps was the root of the problem: the British were doing too well. Many teams clicked that if they did not attack at that point, a bunch sprint was all but an inevitability. And with Cavendish’s form on an all-time high after the Tour - and his failure to falter on the nine climbs of Box Hill confirmed that he had not lost his condition - it was now or never. They had to make a move.
“We had planned that all the way from the beginning of the race to do something on Box Hill, but after what the British did we knew at that point we had to strike” Spain’s road coach Jose Luis De Santos, who placed three Spanish riders into the 30-strong break that finally decided the race, told The Independent.
“The Britons had controlled the race perfectly up til then. So we got Alejandro [Valverde] and Luis Leon [Sanchez] on the attack.” And with one-day specialists of the calibre of Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Sylvain Chavanel (France) and Vinokourov doing the same math and in the move, too, suddenly Britain were on the back foot.
Although Germany’s support was marginally more intense after Box Hill, it was never sufficient, and the riders they had to use - huge powerhouses like Bert Grabsch - were a little out of their depth on the rolling roads that followed. And at that point Britain’s lengthy efforts to keep the race under control began to show, with first Froome, then Millar and finally Wiggins dropping back - all exhausted.
“The race was six hours long and we’d done five and a quarter hours on the front, I just didn’t have that extra little bit,” commented Britain’s David Millar.
"We rode the exact race we wanted to ride,” Cavendish told the BBC. “We wanted to control it and we wanted the group at a minute. We expected teams to come and chase at the end with us. We controlled it with four guys for 250 km and we couldn't do more. We are human beings.”
“Technically the Brits did a perfect race” commented veteran US racer Chris Horner, racing his first Olympic Games at 40, “I would have done it exactly as they did.”
“They played to their strengths, which was working for Mark Cavendish, playing it easy on the ascents of Box Hill and then harder everywhere else” - so the other riders would be deterred from attacking. But without the support of other sprinter-led teams on the crucial last forty kilometres, four riders - crucially, three less than the seven who supported Cavendish's successful World's bid - were never going to be able to bring back 30.
The loss, late-on, of a top Classics rider like Cancellara in the front group, bizarrely, did not benefit the British pursuit: instead when the Swiss rider crashed, it spurred the other riders in the break on to greater efforts - given they realised their chances of success had increased hugely as a result of his absence. And that, coupled with a gentle but perceptible tailwind speeding the break on its way yet further, spelled curtains for the British who had almost unaided managed to keep the break at 45 to 55 seconds for almost 30 kilometres.
The knock-on efforts of riding a Tour de France cannot be blamed for the British defeat: most top bike riders will be riding 250 kilometre races like the Clásica San Sebastian, a Spanish one-day event, the Saturday after they ride up the Champs Elysées in the Tour’s final stage. In 2009 Cavendish himself won a very tough one-day race in Germany, the Sparkasse Classic, in torrential rainfall five days after the Tour.
“They played the best they could and their racing tactics were spot on,” said De Santos. “Simply, the cards didn’t fall their way.”