Why Team GB lost the one they were supposed to win

The Mall

Mark Cavendish in flying form, British morale at an all-time high after Bradley Wiggins's 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 in the world. How could it possibly have gone so wrong for Team GB in yesterday's road-race?

The short answer to that is that for 85 per cent of the race it hadn't. For over 200km of the 250km 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 escaped from the start was pegged back to a minute, a manageable difference.

As the race powered up Box Hill for the final time that, perhaps, was the root of the problem: the British were doing too well. And with Cavendish's failure to falter on the nine climbs of the hill confirming that he had not lost his condition after the Tour, many teams clicked that if they did not attack at that point, a bunch sprint was all but inevitable. 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," said Spain's road coach Jose Luis De Santos, who placed three Spanish riders into the 30-strong break that finally decided the race.

With one-day specialists of the calibre of Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Sylvain Chavanel (France) and the eventual winner Alexandr Vinokurov doing the same, suddenly Britain were on the back foot.

First Chris Froome, then David Millar and finally Wiggins dropped 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," said Millar.

"We rode the exact race we wanted to ride," Cavendish explained. "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 250km and we couldn't do more. We are human beings."

"Technically the Brits did a perfect race," added the veteran US racer Chris Horner. "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 40km, four riders – crucially, three less than the seven who supported Cavendish's World Championship win – 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 on the other riders in the break because they realised their chances of success had increased hugely as a result. And that, coupled with a gentle but perceptible tailwind speeding the break on its way, spelled curtains for the British who had, almost unaided, managed to keep the break at 45 to 55secs for almost 30km.

The knock-on efforts of riding a Tour de France cannot be blamed for the British defeat; most top riders will be riding 250km races like the Clásica San Sebastian, a Spanish one-day event, the Saturday after the Tour's final stage.

In 2009 Cavendish himself won a very tough one-day race in Germany, the Sparkasse Classic, in torrential rain 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."

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