July 29, 2012 (London, UK) – The world’s number one ranked women, Marianna Vos (Netherlands), finally took home the gold medal that had eluded her in the past with tenacious tactics and a strong team in the Elite Women’s 140km Olympic road race as she out-sprinted local favourite Elizabeth (Lizzie) Armitstead (Britain) in the final 150m for the victory. Russian TT champ, Olga Zabelinskaya, was the valiant bronze medalist as she was no match for her two rivals in the final selection.
The lead changed as often as the weather in the Elite women’s Olympic road race event as team after team attacked at every opportunity and racers went through everything from torrential downpours to bright sunny skies.
In the end though, what won the race for Vos, the World Championship silver medal bridesmaid on the road for the past five years (but she won in 2006), was the relentless attacking throughout by the Dutch team and her brilliant riding, including the winning move as she quickly chased down Russian Olga Zabelinskaya at the end of the last lap of Box Hill.
American Shelley Olds and Armitstead had sensed the moment as well and with Vos, and Zabelinskaya, became the winning break after the first 100km of aggressive riding. With approximately 40km left in the race, they immediately organized a pace line of super efficiency. The Dutch gold medalist took the race in 3:35:29 hours for an average speed of 39.085 km per hr.
After dismal results from the British men’s team the day before, Armitstead too had much to prove. As they approached the finishing stretch, Vos unleashed her trademark deadly sprint which Armitstead could not quite answer. The Dutch rider won by over a bike length. Zabelinskaya attacked early but was quickly relegated to third finishing two seconds behind.
Germany’s Ina Teutenberg, bronze medalist at the 2011 World Championships to Vos’ silver, won the group sprint while 2011 (and 2010) road world champion Giorgia Bronzini from Italy was 5th with Sweden’s Emma Johansson in 6th. Olds, who was terribly disappointed when she suffered a puncture in the break, made an incredible comeback to catch onto to the chase group and finish 7th.
Canada’s Joelle Numainville was the first Canadian, in 12th place, to match her 12th at the 2011 World Championships. Denise Ramsden was 27th . All of this group placed in the same time as Teutenberg. Clara Hughes was 32nd at 32 seconds back.
Vos – a woman possessed – was not going to let the field catch her, no matter how many world and Olympic medalists were in it. She pushed Olds (until she punctured) and Zabelinskaya perhaps beyond what they thought she could handle, while Armitstead , at 23 years of age, was seen as the top road racer for Team GB going into the race. After 5km they had a 37-second gap, and would move it up to as high as 50 seconds. It was clear, with 10km left to race, the bunch would have to make a superhuman effort in order to catch the break. It just didn’t happen.
“With the Olympics it’s something different,” said Vos, referring to the road world championships from 2007 to 2011 when she took the silver five times straight. “I knew this was another race. It was a hard race today with the weather and also, I felt good. We made a hard race with the Dutch squad – lots of attacks – and thought maybe this is the day it will come together.”
Lots of attacks may be an understatement. Vos’ teammate Ellen van Dijk in particular never let up as soon as the race commenced. She later was involved in a crash and was judged as Over The Time Limit by the time she was able to ride again. Vos said the plan was to attack constantly – which would be hard on the Dutch team, “but hard for the others too…” she added.
“We wanted to make it a tough race for everyone. We got to Box Hill and we were going to make the race. We have got a strong team.” Vos made two prior attacks before she went with Zabelinskaya – one after the first lap of Box Hill and then again on the second. It was her third attempt, when she bridged to Zabelinskaya, that she met with success.
In order to have such an aggressive plan, Vos said the first priority for the Dutch team was to come into the Olympic year in “…really good shape from the start.” She had a broken collarbone that took her out of racing for four weeks earlier in the season, but wasn’t “too worried about it” as she could train within two weeks.
When Zabelinskaya went, Vos says she felt good and thought to her self this might come together. “I think it did,” she smiled. Vos did add, however, that she knew Armitstead was “fast to the line” saying “I knew I had a chance but even if I made a little mistake, I would not take home the gold.”
Silver medalist Armitstead won Great Britain’s first medal of the Games as Team GB had not performed as expected in the first two days of competition, but said she did not feel any great pressure to perform. “I’m just so glad I committed to the break,” said an Armitstead who simply could not stop smiling, even though her press conference was held up because she wasn’t able to pee in the doping control for over an hour. “If you know anything about Marianne Vos, you know she’s the best in the world.”
Armitstead also addressed an issue in the British press and that suggested there was discontent on the women’s team because reigning Olympic champion Nicole Cooke did not want to ride for Armitstead. Both athletes quickly put an end to that speculation, with Armitstead stating, “I’m just very proud of the team of the girls – there was a lot of talk – but as a group of women we really came together and raced the race and it worked.”
She had hoped for rain as she is not a hot weather racer and when the heat spell arrived last week she started to worry. But, said Armistead, “I’ve been praying for rain – a real downpour. A break has more chance of working together in those conditions – meaning the peloton can be dangerous, slow and slippery in wet conditions.” Vos too wanted “…typical Dutch conditions” though luckily for the peloton, conditions remained dry for most of the two laps of Box Hill. Torrential rain started by the time the break had been established which worked in its favour.
Bronze medalist Zabelinskaya, who spoke English so well that she did not need an interpreter, said she initiated the winning break – which started as a solo attack-because, “I just felt it was the moment. After a couple of minutes I was alone and that’s when I saw the girls. I felt it could work. We worked together to the finish.”
Numainville had a stellar race considering she crashed in the wet conditions and had to chase back to the peloton that was chasing Vos and company. “It was hard to come back,” said a mud-streaked Numainville, but I put all my energy to come back and I did.” The team, says Numainville, had planned to “…sit back and not waste energy” given that they had three riders while the top teams had four. “But if anything went, then we would try to go with it.”
Clara Hughes rode strong and for much of the race was at the front, trying to answer any attack she could. She and Denise Ramsden were there to make things as amendable as possible for Numainville to find a good position in the final sprint. With Numainville’s crash, that made that plan difficult, but she still was able to nearly reach to the front of a chase pack of twenty-four by the finish line.
Hughes said she wasn’t disappointed about missing the break and was stoked for Wednesday’s time trial, partly because of the huge show of support for the women. “It was epic,” she said of the atmosphere on the race course that was so deafening sometimes it was difficult to think. “It was awesome. There were so many people on the course. We were wondering if people would come and watch the women’s race, so it was amazing to have so much support in the pouring rain.”
In the race itself there were plenty of dangerous breaks as one world or Olympic medalist after another attacked, counter-attacked and then attacked again. The Orange Dutch Machine dominated, but the Germans, Brits, Americans and Swedes also rode aggressively from the front.
Hughes was always in the top ten on each climb up Box Hill, while Germany’s Teutenberg, Brit Emma Pooley (who later crashed and came in 1:47 minutes back in 40th position) and American Kristin Armstrong (who was caught in a crash later on and finished 47 back) were chasing every attack that went….and there were many until everything aligned and Zabelinskaya’s effort formed the winning break.
Germany’s Judith Arndt and Sweden’s silver medalist from Beijing, Emma Johansson punctured in the last 30 km with road grit grinding its way into tires. Try as they did they could not close the gap and get back on. Beijing Olympic champion Nicole Cooke also had mechanical problems and did a stellar job getting back in the pack, but did not make the break and finished beside Hughes.
While great riders such as Arndt, Pooley, Johansson, Hughes and Cooke did not have the race they hoped to have, Vos finally secured that elusive gold road racing medal around her neck, while a twenty-three-year-old young woman from Yorkshire saved the day for her country.