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Small teams, long climb make finishing strength a must in women’s Olympic road race

On the eve of the women’s Olympic road race, the best female riders in the world are wondering just how the event will play out. “There’s only two circuits, so that should be enough to break it up. But it really depends on if people are willing to set a good tempo on the climb,” said American Amber Neben. “It comes down to whether people choose to actually ride. A lot of times you get the selection over the top but people aren’t willing to ride afterward so it comes back together.”

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By Fred Dreier

On the eve of the women’s Olympic road race, the best female riders in the world are wondering just how the event will play out.

“There’s only two circuits, so that should be enough to break it up. But it really depends on if people are willing to set a good tempo on the climb,” said American Amber Neben. “It comes down to whether people choose to actually ride. A lot of times you get the selection over the top but people aren’t willing to ride afterward so it comes back together.”

The rules keep the field small — there are just 67 women in this Olympic contest — and no one team can truly control the race. The top 25 qualifying nations receive only three spots, and many will field a single rider. With so few cards to play, teams are less motivated to burn matches by placing their riders on the front. Depending on the attitude of the field, early breakaways can gain huge time gaps on the peloton, or not be allowed at all.

“If people get too far up the road, you just don’ t have the horsepower to bring them back,” said Canadian Alex Wrubleski, who is racing her first Olympics. “I just don’t see breakaways getting away too easily.”

The 126.4km race follows the same course as Saturday’s men’s race, covering 78.8 relatively flat kilometers through downtown Beijing, passing historical and cultural landmarks like Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Then riders face a 23.8km circuit that passes under the Great Wall on its ascent up Badaling pass, a gradual 12.4km climb that ascends 330 meters. The ensuing descent is lengthy and gradual, with riders facing a strong head wind on their way back to the finish line.

“I don’t think a pure sprinter is going to win,” said American Christine Thorburn. “The climb is a little too long for them. It’s going to be a rider who can conserve on the climb and then keep the power for the end.”

World Cup leader Judith Arndt of Germany, Britain’s Nicole Cooke, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and Oenone Wood of Australia are all well-rounded riders with the skills to take home the win. Among the Americans, Kristin Armstrong, the 2006 time trial world champ, has the climbing legs and raw power to make it to the finish with the lead group.

American ambitions
The United States comes in with arguably the strongest team of pure climbers. Armstrong, Neben and Thorburn all are capable of making the lead group up the twisting Badaling pass. And with Thorburn and Armstrong making their second Olympic appearances, the squad also has the experience to score a medal.

Both Armstrong and Thorburn will also represent the United States at the time-trial events on Wednesday. The two differ in their mental approaches to the 2008 Games.

“In 2004 I enjoyed every second of the experience, but I would say I was more of a participant — this year I have more pressure on myself to do well,” Armstrong said. “This year I’m spending a lot of time making sure everything is perfect. When these races are won, they are won by a small margin.”

Armstrong’s pre-Olympic preparations included another visit to the wind tunnel to perfect her head and hip position on the time-trial bike, bringing four bikes and nine wheels to China, and mapping the course on her Garmin.

For Thorburn, her time in Athens convinced her to enjoy the Olympic experience in Beijing. Thorburn said she was forced to deal with stress in 2004 when USA Cycling waited until the 11th hour to name the spots for the time trials.

“I’m stopping and taking photos this year,” Thorburn said. “Dede [Barry] was a good role model in 2004. She was very focused, but was the first one to stop and take photos and appreciate the experience. She was relaxed and enjoying it. I learned a lot from that.”

The women’s road race begins at 10 a.m. on Sunday. Stay tuned to www.velonews.com for news and results.