LONDON (VN) — American Shelley Olds did her best to hold back the tears at the finish line of the women’s Olympic road race Sunday, recognizing that an Olympic medal had slipped through her fingers when she punctured out of a four-woman move that went on to sweep the podium.
With roughly 40km remaining, and no more trips over the Box Hill climb, Olds was in the winning move with Marianne Vos (Netherlands), Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) and Olga Zabelinskaya (Russia), who would finish in that order.
But with about 29km remaining, disaster struck when Olds’ front wheel went flat. She took a wheel change and regained contact with the chasing peloton, but even with Germany, Italy and the USA driving the chase, that group would never see the leading trio again.
Twenty-seven seconds after the medals had been claimed, Olds finished fourth in the bunch sprint with the group, taking seventh on a race day marked by rain and wind.
Afterward, the 31-year-old from Massachusetts, who lives in Gilroy, California, was calm and collected, but also clearly struggling to contain the frustration that comes with losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’m really emotional right now,” Olds said. “I knew that was the time. I knew (Vos) was going to go. I was on her wheel. I was there, and then I flatted, and that’s it. My race was over.
“I tried to stay focused, and to see if maybe it was going to come back, but I was pretty sure that was the winning move. It’s devastating to know that you were there, in the Olympic Games … but hey, that’s bike racing, what are you going to do?”
Olds said that she’d pinned her race strategy on Vos, the hands-down pre-race favorite.
“For me, Vos was the reference,” Olds said. “She’s the No. 1 rider in the world. It was her race to win or lose. I put all my cards into marking Vos. … This is so devastating, I saw that moment, and I was there.”
Olds was well familiar with all three women in the breakaway; Armitstead is her teammate at (AA Drink-leontien.nl) and Zabelinskaya was her teammate last year at Diadora Pasta Zara.
“I know Lizzie well and have a lot of respect for her,” Olds said. “She’s really strong, and I knew she would be really strong today. As soon as we started to roll, Lizzie was on it. Vos was the one that instigated the move, but whenever we had separation, Lizzie was the one saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’
“It was primarily Lizzie and Vos in the beginning, making it stick. I was doing my best to roll through, but it was a hard attack, and I was trying to recover there in the beginning. Olga was there, and she is always strong and steady.”
Once the four women had opened a gap, Olds said, she switched her focus away from making the move stick and toward figuring out what it would take to win the race.
Asked how she rated her chances at earning one of the three medals on offer for the four women in the break, Olds — one of the best sprinters in the world and the winner of the 2012 Tour of Chongming Island World Cup — was diplomatic.
“It would have been difficult,” Olds said. “I know all three riders pretty well. One is my teammate now, and one was my teammate last year, so I knew what strengths and weaknesses each rider had. I was just feeling them out and seeing what I was going to do in the end. But of course, I think I had a chance for a medal.”
After Olds’ puncture, teammate Kristin Armstrong put in a huge effort to bring back the leading group, but was not able to make much headway.
“It was bad timing,” Armstrong said. “When Shelly came back with a flat tire it was right when the rain really started coming down. The course started becoming more like a crit course. It was bad luck. And that’s bike racing — all the stars have to be aligned.
“We had a strong team, and Shelly was in the right move. Just like yesterday, with the men, we had strong people up front, and the Germans were also up front chasing, and others, but at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it’s really hard to chase these last 30km on this course. You can’t say we didn’t try.”
Reminded that September’s world road championship in the Netherlands is on a course that suits her strengths, Olds displayed class and resolve.
“I’ll pick my head back up, and I can be happy that I was in the winning move in the Olympic Games,” she said. “Bad luck is a part of cycling, and it happened to me today, unfortunately.”