THE BRITISH team began yesterday’s men’s road race with an ambitious plan to control the 250- kilometre event, including nine climbs of Box Hill, to set up the fastest sprinter in the world, Mark Cavendish, for the showpiece finish on The Mall, right in front of Buckingham Palace.
The plan went seriously awry. In just about every conceivable sense, the script lurched as dramatically from the intended narrative as it would be possible to imagine. Instead of Cavendish sprinting to victory at the head of a heaving peloton, the thousands of spectators were treated instead to the sight of two riders, Alexandre Vinokourov and Rigoberto Uran, arriving together, just ahead of a group from which they had escaped in the closing stages.
And sprinting to the win was Vinokourov, the 38-year-old from Kazakhstan who has served a doping ban and retired twice, most recently after falling down a ravine and breaking his leg during last year’s Tour De France. He said yesterday that he will retire now – or after Wednesday’s time trial. But he remains a divisive figure, with some fans professing their admiration for his attacking flair and panache, while others despise him for being completely unrepentant about his positive test for an illegal blood transfusion during the 2007 Tour.
The defeat was a bitter, bitter blow for Cavendish, whose four British team-mates – Tour winner Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard – gave their all. But, in the end, the herculean task looked simply too herculean. While an eight-man team controlled last year’s world championship road race in Copenhagen, which Cavendish won on a flatter course, repeating that trick with just five men, on the narrow, winding and hilly lanes of Surrey, proved far more difficult.
“We rode the exact race we wanted to ride,” said Cavendish afterwards. “We wanted to control it and we wanted the [escape] group at a minute.” That was what happened, with a break of 11 riders forming at the front, and then another group of 11 forming behind. But Britain were left to do it all themselves – to keep the escape groups at a manageable distance, then also reel them back in over the final 50km.
“We expected teams to come and chase at the end with us,” said Cavendish. “We controlled it with four guys for 250km and we couldn’t do more. We are human beings. There was a group of 22 [when the two 11-man groups merged] and we couldn’t pull them back. The four guys who were at the front all day couldn’t do it. The Germans came a bit too late and the other teams seemed to be more content that they wouldn’t win as long as we didn’t win. That’s kind of how it goes.
“I can be proud of how the lads rode today,” Cavendish continued. “I’m proud of my country as there was incredible support. The guys are sat there [in the changing room], they are spent. They have got nothing left in the tank. It’s incredible to see that, to see what they gave for the cause.”
Although the British team had spelled out their plan, and seemed prepared to sit on the front all day, it was clear from what Cavendish said that they expected some help. The absence of the Germans, in particular, was curious, given that their sprinter, Andre Greipel, is fresh from winning three stages at the Tour de France.
“It seems like most teams are happy not to win as long as we don’t win,” Cavendish told the BBC. “It’s the story of our lives in cycling. It shows what a strong nation we are. We’ve got to take the positives from that and take it as a compliment.
“It’s bitterly disappointing. There’s 70 guys in our group at the finish, [so] I don’t understand why there’s [only] three guys riding. It doesn’t make sense.”
He continued: “No one wants to help us. The Australians sit there. They always just ride negatively... they’re happy to see us lose. I’d like to say that’s how it goes, but it’s disappointing. But we did everything. We can’t make excuses. We did everything we said we were going to do and more. To see the guys with the calibre they’ve got ride like that for me is incredible.”
The key moment came on the ninth and final climb of Box Hill, when strong riders including Uran, Fabian Cancellara and three Spaniards, including Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez, attacked. The Brits did not respond, because, as Millar later put it, “We were always racing at Mark’s pace on the climb, so we couldn’t react.”
Until then it looked as though the breakaway was being pulled back but the original escapees were galvanised by the new recruits and quickly built a minute’s lead. It seemed that Spain had the strongest cards to play but Cancellara was an ominous presence until, leading the group around a sweeping right bend, he misjudged his line and crashed painfully into the barrier.
After his crash the gap shrank to 37 seconds. There were fewer than 20km remaining. The race seemed back on. But, behind, Froome sat up, a spent force, and even Wiggins was starting to tire, though he, Millar and Stannard continued to sit on the front for mile after mile, trying to close the gap for Cavendish. At the front, though, it was Vinokourov, below, who seized the initiative, attacking and being chased down by Uran of Colombia –whose professional team is Team Sky – as they raced through the outskirts of London, over Putney Bridge, up Fulham Road, and then through Knightsbridge.
Millar was almost as despondent as Cavendish at the finish. He also echoed his criticism of the other teams. “We rode the race we wanted to ride. There was a fair chance we weren’t going to pull it off, we needed lots of things to go right. But, when every other team is racing with the sole tactic of thrashing our race up, it becomes impossible. We lost out, but a lot of other teams lost out by trying to race against us.”
For the fans who turned out in their thousands, confident that Cavendish could emulate Wiggins’ great triumph last Sunday, the first day of the Olympics fell a little flat. Now it is up to the British women, headed by defending champion Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead, to restore honour today.