For the nation that invented the individual time trial, it’s appropriate that a major portion of the Olympic time trial course is along the Portsmouth Road, a stretch of highway that saw thousands of amateur riders compete in traditional, early-morning TTs through the 20th century. And before competitive time-trialing began, between the 1870s and 1920s, it was the most famous cycling route in Britain, when hundreds would cycle the 25 miles from London to Ripley for Sunday lunch at the famed Anchor Inn (which is still in business).
The cycling heritage gains extra traction through Brad Wiggins, a Londoner and a favorite for the elite men’s TT gold in August, who also happens to be the current national 10-mile TT champion as recognized by the 90-year-old Road Time Trials Council (now called Cycling Time Trials).
The Olympic TT course starts on the driveway to the 600-year-old Hampton Court Palace, about 12 miles southwest of downtown London. In revealing the course last March, chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces, Michael Day, said, “Since Henry VIII’s time, the palace has played host to many great sporting occasions such as jousting, wrestling, archery and fencing. We are thrilled this sporting legacy will continue in 2012.”
The men’s 44km course first crosses the River Thames and makes a short loop to the west around the reservoirs before heading south on the main, counterclockwise circuit, which turns at the town of Cobham before heading northeast on the old Portsmouth Road through Esher to Kingston-upon-Thames. It re-crosses the river to make a loop to the north, past McQuaid’s alma mater and back through Bushy Park, where kings of England once hunted deer, to the finish at Hampton Court.
The women’s 29km course doesn’t include the initial loop, nor the final one, heading straight to the finish line from Kingston. In both events, riders will start at 90-second intervals.
Only one or two riders per nation can start in the Olympic time trials (depending on 2011 world TT championship results) , so competition will be intense for those spots, particularly among the Americans. Beijing bronze medalist Levi Leipheimer has to show the selectors that he’ll be better suited to the rolling course than multi-national champ Dave Zabriskie, while the much younger Taylor Phinney and Andrew Talansky have to improve on their showings at the 2011 worlds if they are to be considered.
There should be no selection problems for Switzerland’s defending Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara (who has already scouted the course with his new trade team manager Johan Bruyneel) or Germany’s current world champ Tony Martin — both of whom will be using the Tour de France as preparation for London. Other potential contenders include Richie Porte or Jack Bobridge of Australia, Gustav Larsson of Sweden, Jesse Sergent of New Zealand and Svein Tuft of Canada. Wiggins is the logical representative for Britain, but it’s possible he could have competition from Sky teammate Chris Froome.
On the women’s side, 2008 gold medalist Kristin Armstrong first has to win her place on the U.S. team over another former world champion, Amber Neben, before defending her title. And once selected, the best American will face stiff competition from the past two world champions Judith Arndt of Germany and Emma Pooley of Britain, along with Linda Villumsen of New Zealand and either Tara Whitten or Clara Hughes of Canada.
The British don’t hold out much hope of gold medals in the two cross-country races because the home country’s best mountain bikers are downhillers, which is not an Olympic event. However, the organizers (after several attempts) have come up with an exciting course in the rolling hills at Hadleigh Farm, Essex, overlooking the Thames Estuary, 40 miles east of London. It includes a couple of technical rock sections, made with imported boulders, which were added to the difficulties before the Olympic test event last July.
There were limited fields for both men’s and women’s races on a day of warm sunshine, but there were two strong winners. The men’s 2004 and 2008 Olympic champ Julien Absalon of France won comfortably ahead of runner-up Christoph Sauser of Switzerland, while Canada’s Catharine Pendrel — who went on to take the 2011 world championship — rode away from her regular Luna teammate Georgia Gould after the American crashed on the last of six laps.
Maybe Absalon, the highest paid cyclist in France, and Pendrel will again take gold this coming August; but the opposition will be much tougher. In the men’s race, Absalon will have stiff competition from new world champ Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and former world champions Nino Schurter of Switzerland and José Antonio Hermida of Spain. Todd Wells, who placed top-10 at the 2011 worlds, will likely be the strongest U.S. challenger for a medal.
Pendrel’s winning experience on the Olympic course could well give her the edge in August, though she’ll face a fierce challenge from Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska, who took the Olympic silver in 2008, was world champion in 2010 and runner-up to Pendrel at last year’s worlds.