Van der Breggen claims gold in Rio after her race-leading Dutch compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten crashes hard on the final descent

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) — Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen capped off a hectic Olympic road race finale with a sprint victory Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, claiming gold ahead of Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longho Borghini (Italy).

Van der Breggen’s compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten had appeared to be on track for gold just a few minutes prior, riding solo off the front with less than 15 kilometers to go — but a horrific crash on a technical final descent took her out of contention and out of the race altogether.

American Mara Abbott, a few seconds behind, took over in the race lead after van Vleuten’s crash, powering onto the flat run-in to the line alone with van der Breggen, Johansson, and Longo Borghini in hot pursuit. Abbott held out into the final few hundred meters, but a determined chase swept her up in sight of the finish line, setting up the final sprint. Van der Breggen triumphed in the fast finish, with Johansson close behind and Longo Borghini a distant third.

“It really shook me when I saw Annemiek crashed in the road,” said the new Olympic champion. “Annemiek was leading but I realized I was now first in the team. I was shocked.

“I focused and got in the race. This is the result of years of hard work, riding and training.”

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Belgian Lotte Kopecky made an ambitious solo breakaway in the early goings of the race, with a group of five heavyweight chasers pursuing her, among them American Kristin Armstrong and Italy’s Giorgia Bronzini.

The pursuers caught Kopecky around the midway point of the race, but the peloton swallowed up all six soon after.

Inside the last 40km, seven riders got clear of the bunch. Reigning Olympic champion Marianne Vos (Netherlands) and 2014 world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (France) headlined the powerhouse breakaway, which drew out a concerted chase from an American squad that had missed the move.

The escapees took their lead out to more than a minute but were caught with 23km left, just after the start of the final Vista Chinesa climb.

With her American teammate Megan Guarnier losing contact in a rapidly dwindling pack, Abbott pushed the pace on the climb, reducing the lead group to just seven riders before an attack by van der Breggen whittled it down to four.

Abbott and Van Vleuten then went clear and quickly built an advantage on the steep gradients of the ascent, cresting the climb with 15km to ride 50 seconds ahead of a trio consisting of van der Breggen, Johansson, and Longo Borghini. Reigning world champion Elizabeth Armitstead (Great Britain) led another group not far behind.

Van Vleuten left a cautious Abbott behind on the descent, speeding out of sight as the road snaked downhill, but the Dutch rider suffered a horrific crash 10km from the finish. She initially lay motionless at the side of the road, though Dutch chef de mission Maurits Hendriks has since confirmed that van Vleuten is conscious at a nearby hospital.

Abbott soldiered ahead, now leading solo, and maintained a strong gap as the road evened out, but her advantage over the chasing three began to fall inside the final 5km. She held on out front under the flamme rouge only to be swept up a few hundred meters from the line.

“I saw the 300 meter to go sign and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness I could actually win this,’” the American said. “And then I looked under my shoulder and they were right there and they passed me. But there was a split second that I thought it.”

Caught by the chasers, Abbott had no energy left to battle for a medal, leaving it up to van der Breggen, Longo Borghini, and Johansson to fight for the win. Van der Breggen opened her sprint first and proved too strong to catch despite Johansson’s best efforts, while Longo Borghini settled for third.

Olympic women’s race results