Olympic Road Race Preview: Cavendish’s race to lose

If he can get over the Box Hill climb, which many feel he can, Mark Cavendish is the top favorite for Olympic gold on The Mall

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LONDON, England (VN) — One hundred and forty riders will take the start line of the Olympic road race Saturday morning at The Mall, London’s historic corridor that includes Parliament and Buckingham Palace, yet only one will make history several hours later as the gold medal winner.

And with less than 24 hours remaining, British sprinter Mark Cavendish was the odds-on favorite to bring home the gold medal, on home soil. Cavendish won the test event last year, which used the same out-and-back route, yet only tackled the centerpiece Box Hill climb twice, rather than the nine trips the men’s field will take Saturday during the 250km race.

A gold medal would cap an unfathomable season for Cavendish and Great Britain.

Cycling’s reigning world road champion, Cavendish won three stages at the Tour de France in July, including the final sprint on the Champs Élysées, while also riding in support of his Sky teammates Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, who finished first and second overall, bringing the U.K. its first Tour champion.

In all, four riders from Britain’s five-man squad — Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome and David Millar — won stages at the Tour, combining for seven stage wins. Wiggins, a two-time Olympic gold medalist on the velodrome, is one of the favorites for Wednesday’s 44km time trial.

Cavendish called Britain’s five-man squad, which also includes Sky’s Ian Stannard, “a dream team.”

“It’s easy to get emotional about it,” Cavendish said at a Team GB press conference Thursday evening. “I’ve been nervous this week. We’ve trained to be able to deal with those nerves and we’ve got to put it to bed.”

Even IOC president Jacques Rogge admitted a win for Cavendish and host nation Britain would give the Games an early jolt of momentum.

“An early gold medal for the host country is of great importance to lift the mood and spirit of the whole atmosphere of the nation,” Rogge said. “Saturday morning is one of the true moments of the Games, and I know the entire British nation is waiting for Cavendish to win that elusive gold medal.”

Should the Olympic road race come down to a field sprint, Cavendish’s main rivals will likely include German André Greipel, Peter Sagan of Slovakia and Matt Goss of Australia. Greipel and Sagan won three stages each at the Tour de France. Due to team squad sizes being based on a nation’s UCI points, Sagan, like Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, will ride alone without support.

An all-star Australian squad, which includes Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers, Stuart O’Grady and national champion Simon Gerrans, will support Goss.

Australian team director Matt White has said the team isn’t banking on a field sprint.

“Most of the traditional cycling nations don’t want a sprint because they’ve got very limited chances of a medal. I expect the race to be aggressive early; otherwise it just plays into the hands of the (British),” White said. “We’ve got a team that can afford to be aggressive. If it doesn’t work out then we’ve always got Gossy for the sprint, we can work both ways.”

Another top team is Belgium, which brings Philippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen, Jurgen Roelandts, Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh. Gilbert can win from a small group, while Boonen will look to unleash his sprint should the race stay together to the finish.

It the Tour de France instilled confidence in Team GB, it was a disaster for Spain, as all five riders from its original Olympic squad went down in crashes. Of those riders, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Samuel Sánchez and three-time world champion Oscar Freire were forced to sit out the London Games, replaced by Jonathan Castroviejo and Francisco Ventoso. Two of Spain’s riders, Luis Leon Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde, went on to win stages at the Tour. Sprinter J.J. Rojas left the Tour early with a broken collarbone, but has recovered and will compete in London.

“There’s no doubt this isn’t the team we expected and that both Oscar and Samuel are two significant losses,” team manager Jose Luis de Santos said in a statement. “But we’ve assembled a great team, a group of cyclists who have great rapport, great camaraderie and I think this is always the key on any team. All are super motivated, at a great level, and extremely eager, aware that we’re defending the Olympic title and that we’re going to put all our energy and dreams into defending it.”

Team USA will look to sprinter Tyler Farrar in a field sprint, with Taylor Phinney riding in a leadout role. Americans Tejay van Garderen, Chris Horner and Timmy Duggan are all likely to make it with the front group should the field splinter on Box Hill.

“We have a fabulous group of strong riders here,” Horner said. “You have Timmy Duggan, who can ride really strong all day long, you’ve got Farrar who can win sprints, you’ve got Tejay and I who can go with the best riders in the world on the climb, and of course you have Phinney who can motor away. If he gets in the front group at the finish and they give him a gap they are never going to be able to catch him. It really depends on how the riders feel on the day of the race.”

However, after test riding the course this week, Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad he doesn’t think a small group will come to the line.

“It’s not a really tough course, but not really easy,” he said. “You can do the climb of Box Hill in the big ring; I think [Mark] Cavendish will be able to manage it.”

If Gilbert proves right and Cavendish wins gold on The Mall, it will mark a new chapter of British history on perhaps its most historic stretch of road.