LONDON, England (VN) — The men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic road teams are aiming for different finales on The Mall in London this weekend. The men’s squad brings a battered Tyler Farrar for a bunch sprint, but may look to split the race on Saturday, while the women’s squad is rallying behind sprinter Shelley Olds in what may be an extremely aggressive tilt on Sunday.
The nine members of Team USA’s Olympic road team met with the press at the Olympic Main Press Center in London on Friday afternoon to field questions about this weekend’s upcoming road races.
For both the men’s five-man squad and the women’s four-rider team, the questions were similar in tone, involving the course and its demanding climb up Box Hill, and questioning the likelihood of whether both the men’s and women’s races might come down to field sprints.
The men’s tilt is 250km, with nine trips over Box Hill (2.5km at 4.8 percent), and the women’s race is 140km, with just two trips over the climb. Both courses include a 71km stretch from The Mall in London to the 15.9km Box Hill circuit, and a 40km stretch back to the finish line on The Mall.
Both U.S. teams have top sprinters, in Farrar and Olds. Both riders have beaten the top sprinters in the sport, though Farrar struggled at the Tour de France, suffering multiple crashes during the first week, and showed no indication that he was on form to outclass riders such as Mark Cavendish, André Greipel or Peter Sagan.
Men may aim for small group over a bunch finish
Given the small team sizes and lack of race radios, plus the 25-mile run-in to the finish line, predictions for the men’s race were wide-open. Chris Horner, the team’s oldest rider and a first-time Olympian, put the odds of a field sprint at “fifty-fifty.”
Farrar, who raced the circuit’s test event in 2011, warned that nine trips over the Box Hill climb might just prove to be tougher than some expect.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting race,” Farrar said. “I don’t think the course has been given its fair due. I think it’s harder than people are saying. It’s not something where one lap is really hard, but it could prove to be an attrition thing. There’s not much recovery on the circuit. It might just surprise a few people.”
What’s sure is that due to the disparity in team sizes — based on UCI points, national squads range from a maximum of five riders to just one — there will be an array of pre-race agendas.
“The teams that have a big sprinter are going to be happy with a sprint, while some teams aren’t,” Farrar said. “Some teams will try to make the race hard, to split it apart, and other teams will try to glue it together. Over the course of nine laps, my prediction is that a small group comes off the circuit without any sprinters in it, but things will come together in the 40km back to London. No matter how hard the guys up front are riding, that’s a lot of time for guys to chase back on.”
The question then is — does Farrar have what it takes to earn a medal?
“The Tour de France didn’t go as planned for me,” Farrar said. “I got through it ok, but I had several big crashes in the first week. That’s not something you want. I have healed up, and gotten healthier. Of course coming off the Tour I was quite tired, but I think I’ve recovered. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow who has recovered and who hasn’t.”
Tejay van Garderen added that while the Tour was demanding, it would be very difficult to win the Olympic road race without having raced in France.
“I think the winner of the Olympics will be someone who raced at the Tour,” he said. “You don’t get that kind of training, that kind of volume, any other way. As long as you come out of it healthy, that will be the guy making a difference after 220km of racing.”
Asked about Team USA banking its medal chances on Farrar in a field sprint, Horner was diplomatic.
“I think if the group splits in half, it’s not going to be me my job, or Tejay’s, to stay with Farrar,” Horner said. “Unless he comes up to us sometime during the race and says, ‘Guys, I have exceptional legs, this is it, I can do it.’ Otherwise, I would say my job, and Tejay’s, is to stay in the front group. Of course, having Farrar allows us to not have to do some extraordinary work in the front group. If it stays away, great; if not, then it comes back and we have Farrar.
“If Farrar was winning like he was last year, you have to believe we’d go into the team meeting saying we have to do everything we can to make it a field sprint,” Horner continued. “But as it is now, I think the [team] meeting is to make sure we are represented in the front group when it splits on the climb on the final laps. I can see a group of 15 or 20 driving it to the finish, then the tactics begin, and you try to get away. If you get a little gap, that’s how you’ll get your medal. Tejay or I will not get a medal coming into a sprint with 15 or 20 guys, so hopefully there are a lot of attacks, and hopefully there’s a little gamble where you can get a gap and get away. It happens all the time in bike racing.”
Asked about Team USA’s likeliest scenario for a medal on Saturday, USA Cycling vice president of athletics Jim Miller told VeloNews, “Horner can sprint out of a small group. Tejay is actually fairly fast out of a small group. He had a really nice sprint out a group at the Tour de Suisse last year, he was third or fourth in a sprint, though it was slightly uphill. This sprint isn’t his style, but out of a small group he’s deceptively fast. Taylor can also get up and over those small hills for a long time; I think you may actually see Taylor in the front group, and Taylor is exceptionally fast.
“I think our best opportunity is to come into this finish with a smaller group. If it’s a hard race with a lot of separation, given the size of the teams, there are not a lot of groups that will come back together.”
Phinney, who is expected to ride in support and as leadout for Farrar, said the team hadn’t yet discussed tactics, joking that it was probably intentional that they hadn’t prior to the press conference. He added, however, that he believes he will make the final selection over Box Hill.
“I feel really confident in my abilities to be up in that front select group. I’ve had really great training over the past two months, great support, and I have my first grand tour under my belt,” Phinney said. “If it does come down to a group and Tyler is there, I will be his right-hand man, for sure. We have a few cards to play. We’ve got Tejay, who just earned the white jersey at the Tour de France. We’ll be active up there and in the moves, and like Chris said recently in a VeloNews story, communication will be the most important thing for us.”
Horner said he sees Sagan, a sprinter that can climb exceptionally well, as the race’s biggest favorite. Asked how he expected the Slovakian might impact the race, Horner’s answer was succinct: “He’s going to impact the race dramatically.”
“I think Sagan is probably the biggest threat that Cavendish has,” Horner said. “He’s going to destroy the field up the climb at some point in time. I don’t think he’s going to want to come to the finish with Cavendish. I think his odds of winning from a small group are fantastic, if not the best. I would put Sagan down for this race as my absolute favorite. He’s going to be very strong on the climb. He might have the patience to see if someone else splits it on the climb, but if not, at some point in time he’s going to split it. So then you’ll have the front group, then Cavendish will be in the second, third or fourth group. Unless Sagan crashes or flats, he’s the favorite, for sure.”
Golden confidence for the U.S. women
In Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben, Evelyn Stevens and Olds, the U.S. team is perhaps the strongest in the women’s 67-rider peloton. But whether or not that will translate to a medal remains to be seen. Olds, who won the Tour of Chongming Island World Cup in May and a stage at the Giro Donne in July, is the team’s designated sprinter, while Stevens, Neben and Armstrong are all-rounders.
“I’m confident right now that, if it comes to a sprint, I can sprint with the best sprinters,” Olds said. “I don’t know what will happen in the race. We have a lot of cards to play. We have, I think, the strongest team, so it will be just whatever happens, but I would be happy if it came to a sprint.”
Asked how the team’s strategy might play out given a four-rider team isn’t conducive to sacrificing riders for a leadout, Olds was hesitant to reveal the team’s tactics.
“We haven’t discussed the tactics yet, and even if we had, I don’t want to put that out there,” Olds said. “We’re all world-class riders. Everyone on this team has shown they can win. We’re not afraid of any situation. We’re ready for a breakaway, for a field sprint, for a small group sprint or a big group sprint. Most importantly, we’re confident that if we ride as a team, we can come away with the gold medal.”
Miller added that he believes the women’s race could end up being aggressive because of its relatively easy course.
“For us, all things even, we’d prefer to start further out on the course, do more laps on Box Hill, and have a much tougher race,” Miller said. “A lot of times with the women’s peloton, when you have a really tough-looking course, everyone holds back. When they have a relatively straightforward course, they ride a lot more aggressive. I actually think we might have a much more aggressive race from the women’s field than we would have if there were more laps on Box Hill. I think there’s a fair chance that the women’s race won’t come down to a field sprint. In the women’s race you have five teams of four, after that you have teams of three and two and one. If you get the right mix, there’s no one left to chase.”
2012 U.S. Olympic Cycling Team
Timmy Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp)
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan)
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)
Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing)*
Shelley Olds (AA Drink-leontien.nl)
Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon)
Kristin Armstrong (Exergy-Twenty12)*
Amber Neben (Specialized-lululemon)*
* Denotes both time trial and road race