Friday, 27 July 2012

London 2012 Olympic Road Race: The Contenders

Saturday will see a stack of Olympians on two wheels tackle the men's road race. The 250km route starts and finishes in London but heads into Surrey to take in 9 laps of Box Hill. Its not a summit finish though, and the race heads back on flat roads into the capital and outside Buckingham Palace for the finishing straight. Riders will ditch their trade team colours in favour of their national ones in a race that sees team-mates become enemies, well, sort of...

A Sprint Finish?
Maybe. Though much of the Peloton will be hoping not, as put Mark Cavendish on a flat straight finish in front of a home crowed and the Queens home and odds are he is likely to win. Cavendish is the British hopeful, backed up by a formidable team of Bradley Wiggins, David Millar, Ian Stannard and Christopher Froome who will be looking, as one of the strongest teams, to control the race through the Surrey Hills and lead Cavendish out to the line. If GB set the tempo on box hill like Sky did in the Pyrenees then a sprint is likely. The only riders who look capable of troubling Cavendish in a sprint are Germany's Andre Greipel and Slovakia's Peter Sagan.

A Break Away Stays Away?
There will be a break, but getting the right riders in there to make it stick is a different matter. Look out for France's Sylvain Chavanel and Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez - breakaway specialists with the ability to push hard and go the distance. Timing will be crucial, Team GB will fight to bring back any break and it's an art that they have perfected (well those who ride for Sky anyway). Getting a good rider into an early break could force Team GB to work to exhaustion, whilst a team-mate jumps away from the bunch once that the catch is made to take the win. Go to late and it won't stay away. The foot of Box Hill could be a good place to attack but it's still a long way to the finish. A powerhouse like Fabian Cancellara could favour this type of move - renowned for getting away and staying away.

Box Hill
It's not the most difficult climb in the world. Averaging 5% over 2.5km its steady all the way up. A recent resurfacing and lack up kicks mean the pace will by high from start to finish. For teams that don't want to see a sprint finish, and that's most, their only option is to attack attack in hope to break down the bunch, string the riders out and drop the sprinters. It's 9 laps, narrow and wearing. The sprinters will do well to hang on as attacks will come from all angles all the way up. The total climbing distance and gradient is akin to several infamous Tour de France climbs, and we wouldn't be expecting Cavendish to get over any of them in the lead group. Cavendish though has notably lost weight and worked on his climbing in the run up to this race so its wait and see. Watch out for Chavanel, Phil Gilbert, EBH and other puncheurs who will be looking to take their chances before the road flattens out. It's here where Peter Sagan becomes dangerous, we watched him climb to the wheel of Luis Leon Sanchez, much to his amazement, in the Tour - he's a big boy but certainly not a one trick pony. Sprint finish or climb to gold - Sagan can do both.

Cycling is ruthless. Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because they are riding for Country and not Club that those old allegiances won't mean anything. Team GB will right now be trying to broker a deal with the other teams who favour a sprint finish, such as the Germans, to work together to prevent breakaway from staying away. Likewise those with climbers or breakaway specialist will be doing all they can to work together on Box hill to try and split the Peloton apart. Personal allegiances will remain as well. It wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility that we see Austria's Bernhard Eisel do some work on the front to help Team GB bring a break back for close friend Mark Cavendish or to see Chavanel put in a turn for Tom Boonen. This is something unique to cycling and it's often what makes it such an interesting sport.

There is plenty of names in the hat, but its a race into the unknown. The race will be won and lost on Box Hill one way or another - if the bunch stays together, a sprinter will take the honours. If the sprinters get dropped its every man for himself. Cavendish is probably race favourite but it remains to be seen if it will end a sprint, if it does it's a two way race between him and Greipel. On current form it's hard to see past Peter Sagan doing something - he's on his own for Slovakia, but don't forget those club ties, help may come in the form of Vincenzo Nibali and other Liquigas team-mates. He's also clever enough to do the whole thing on his own. If Box Hill rules the day, look out for the likes of Sanchez, Gilbert, Sagan. Even riders like Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali, if the pace is high enough, could do something here. A good outside bet could be Fabian Cancellara, just because, but beyond that, in all honesty, it's anyone guess.

The race itself will certainly be worth a watch as its tailor-made for attacks and for those who found the World Championships Road Race in Copenhagan boring then this could provide an altogether different experience. If Box Hill is tough enough then things will get interesting and from a spectators point of view this is what I'm hoping for, otherwise it has the potential to be a bit of a damp squib - though my patriotic head says 'great - another win for Cav'...

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