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RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — We’ve seen the profiles, seen the maps. But until tires are put to pavement, a race course remains unknown. The Rio road race is no longer a mystery to the American team, which arrived in Brazil on Monday and has now scouted the challenge that lies ahead of them.
And what a challenge it is.
“It’s the hardest course I’ve seen in a single day,” said Megan Guarnier, who leads the Women’s WorldTour and is a top favorite for gold. “It has everything in it. It’s a climber’s course at the end, but there are 120km of racing at the beginning.”
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The climbs are tough, the descents are technical, and the racing will be unpredictable. This much we already knew. But Rio also presents unique obstacles to those racing on its roads. The route passes above one of the city’s favelas and the U.S. team reported seeing stray dogs on and around the difficult descents. The roads are tight, fast, and often slick with rain. One rider, a Korean, has already been hit by a car while training. He appears relatively unhurt.
The U.S. team has not ridden the course without traffic, either, and won’t before the men’s race on Saturday. There was a closed course recon available last Friday, but none of the American team had arrived yet; in fact, they were notified of the opening just days before it occurred.
“It’s a bit wild out there sometimes,” said Brent Bookwalter. “We were following Allen [Lim] on the scooter through the traffic and it was … interesting.”
Nonetheless, the six starters seemed pleased with the course’s racing attributes.
“It’s legit,” Bookwalter said of the 241km men’s course. “It’s a fully diverse course that’s going to suit someone who can climb and descend extremely well. It’s got everything: fast flat, cobblestones, wind, punchy climbs, and tricky downhills. The Vista Chinesa climb is no joke. Its 4km, really steep, and then the second part is not as steep, but it’s still going up. The descent is wild. The route is spectacular. From the ocean views to the amazing mountain scenery, it’s got everything.”
The race’s major climbs and features are clear from the course profile. But Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s athletic director, pointed to a few hidden sections that could prove decisive.
“There’s a small, super-steep climb before Grumari that will unsettle things,” he said. “And another before the final climb that hardly shows up on the profile. Those are harder than they seem.
“The descents are really dangerous. We did know that, but the descent off Grumari is … damn, in the TT, if you make one mistake, God help you.”
The American women’s team — Guarnier, Evelyn Stevens, Kristin Armstrong, and Mara Abbott — come into these Games as five-star favorites. Their 130km course features long stretches along the coast, two loops of the Grumari circuit, and then hits the tough, 25-minute Vista Chinesa climb just before the finish.
“It has the wind, the flat windy sections, it has the cobbles, it has punchy climbs at the bottom,” Guarnier said. “Then you come up to [Vista Chinesa], and it’s super steep, it’s hard, then you have a technical descent to the finish.”
The difficulty for the American squad will lie in controlling the race long enough to let its trio of climbers — Guarnier, Stevens, and Abbott — fly.
The Americans’ position as a pre-race favorites, and the fact that they have a four-woman team, adds pressure to control. Much of that work is likely to fall on the shoulders of Armstrong, a two-time gold medalist in the time trial.
“Not every team has four, only six of us do. So people start looking at you, like you need to do the work,” Armstrong said. “So, we have to be on top of things, we have to keep our team together. I think anything people want to hand us, I think we have members to handle it.”
Stevens agreed. “I think we’re ready for whatever the peloton throws at us,” she said.
The Vista Chinesa climb, which tops out 16km from the finish line, will prove decisive. It comes in two parts, with a small descent halfway up. The descent off its backside, down to the coast, is fast and extremely technical.
“The beginning is quite steep. Then you have a dip, then it’s steep, then it levels off near the top,” Stevens said. “The recon was the first time I’d seen it. I thought it was cool. Really cool. Beautiful, feels like you’re in the jungle. It’s a really unique racing experience.”
The men must approach their race differently. Without a large team like Italy, France, and Great Britain, the lonely American men’s duo of Bookwalter and Taylor Phinney will have to rely on the Olympic road race’s unpredictable nature for success in the 241.5km men’s race, which takes in four Grumari laps and three on the Vista Chinesa circuit. A medal for either in the climb-heavy course would be Miracle-On-Ice level stuff. But with small teams and an uncontrollable race, nothing is impossible.
“If we were racing it with normal teams, you’d have some teams with strong climbers that would probably control he early stages then bring the break back before the climb, then tell their climbers to go to town,” Bookwalter said.
“Even if this was the world championships, if Italy had nine guys, they’d try to control it. But the biggest team is five. There are really strong, realistic threats on teams with one, two, or three guys. So anything goes.”