LONDON (AFP) — Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan claimed an unexpected victory in the men’s Olympic road race Saturday, wrecking Mark Cavendish’s hopes of delivering a first gold of the Games for the hosts.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Vinokourov. “I finished the Tour de France a little tired, but the Olympics, I must go there.
“It was up-down, up-down, too many people. It was very dangerous. I knew if I followed the group, I would have no chance in the sprint. This victory will finish my career.”
Instead, it was Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran who had no chance in the sprint. The two men were off the front in the final kilometers, and as Uran looked over one shoulder to gauge the pursuit, Vino’ took off and hit the line first, both arms raised in triumph.
Uran had to settle for the silver, while Norway’s Alexander Kristoff led the bunch home for bronze after 249.5km of racing that finished in the shadow of Buckingham Palace on The Mall.
American Taylor Phinney finished just off the podium in fourth. “Heartbreaking,” he said later via Twitter. “Tejay (van Garderen) rode his heart out for me today. Congrats to Vino’, Uran and Kristoff.”
Race favorite Cavendish, meanwhile, finished well off the podium as Britain’s highly fancied team was undone by a combination of tactical racing and some incisive, late attacks.
A disappointed Cavendish was philosophical in defeat.
“There was a group of 22 who got away and we couldn’t pull them back,” Cavendish said before praising his teammates for trying to set up a British victory.
“I can be proud of how the lads rode today. I’m proud of my country as there was incredible support. The guys all sat there in the tent, absolutely spent. They have got nothing left in the tank. It’s incredible to see that,” he said.
For Belgian Tom Boonen, who also missed out on a medal, Britain’s strength was their downfall.
“They lost the race a little bit because they were so strong,” Boonen told AFP.
With no race radios and teams with a maximum five riders, Britain was constantly tested throughout the race, which took in nine laps of the hilly 15.4km Box Hill circuit, to the south of London.
After an early 12-man breakaway went on to build a lead of six minutes and was eventually joined by 10 counter-attackers, Belgian Philippe Gilbert attacked solo only to be reeled in 42km from the finish.
His capture served as the springboard for a dangerous attack of 32 riders containing some big names, including Swiss Fabian Cancellara and Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez.
Vinokourov was also in the group, but despite his past pedigree most of the peloton did not pay him enough attention.
Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, the recent Giro d’Italia winner, later told AFP: “Usually when Vino goes, I make sure to go with him. I wish I had that time.”
After pulling ahead of the peloton with around 35km to race they worked together and had built a lead of 55 seconds on Britain and many of the other teams hoping for a bunch finish.
Although Germany had been hoping to set up a bunch sprint for leader Andre Greipel, apart from some brief help earlier in the race from Tony Martin, they did not start helping the chase until the final 25km.
Boonen said Britain had not, as expected, canvassed around for help.
“They were pulling, and they were acting like they didn’t need any help and so everyone just let them control the race,” added the Belgian.
Cavendish lost his first teammate when Briton Chris Froome, the runner-up to Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France last Sunday, peeled off after giving his all in the chase.
But his early exit appeared not to dent Britain’s resolve, which was boosted when Cancellara, the defending Olympic time trial champion, crashed heavily going into a right-hand bend. Although he would go on to finish the race, Cancellara was left with cuts and grazes and a suspected injured shoulder.
The spill robbed the breakaway of momentum, but they were soon back together and managed to maintain their significant advantage on the bunch.
The frontrunners were then stunned by an attack by Uran, which Vinokourov followed in the closing kilometers.
They were left to go on their own, and as Uran looked behind him for their pursuers, Vinokourov took advantage and launched his winning sprint with 300 meters remaining.
“It’s magnificent to end it like this,” said Vinokourov. “All the big champions like (Laurent) Jalabert and (Richard) Virenque went out on top and I wanted to do the same.”
“The last meters were very difficult. Alexander attacked and I didn’t have the strength to sprint.
As for Uran, he said: “We put everything into it. We came here for gold and we got this far. This is an historic medal. I hope that all of the Colombian people can celebrate this medal. This medal is Colombian.”
The victory marks quite a turnaround for Vinokourov. After testing positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France he and his Astana team withdrew from the event, and the Kazakh subsequently announced his retirement.
But he didn’t stay retired. Vinokourov returned to racing in 2009, and in 2010 won Liège-Bastogne-Liège — drawing boos and jeers from some spectators and subsequently writing an open letter to defend himself. Then, in 2011, he crashed out of the Tour, breaking his femur. Once again Vinokourov announced that he would retire — and once again, he returned to racing.
He finished 31st in the 2012 Tour, 1:15:21 behind winner Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky.
And once again the blond-haired racer, who is also known for his tactical nous and aggressive style, said his shady past was now behind him.
“I closed that chapter of my life in 2007 and I’ve proved today that I didn’t come back for nothing. I’ve come here today and achieved a dream,” said Vinokourov.