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How challenging is the Rio de Janeiro Olympic road course?
Just ask the men’s and women’s reigning world champions. Peter Sagan took one look at the course and decided he’d rather test his luck on a mountain bike. And Lizzie Armitstead, silver medalist at the London Games in 2012 and the most dominant rider throughout 2016, heavily discounts her chances against the steep Brazilian mountains.
“I thought the course would be selective, but after seeing it, the peloton is going to be blown to pieces!” Armitstead says. “The last climb is 30 minutes long, so it suits tiny climbers.”
The stage is set for the most explosive Olympic road races in history. Organizers have delivered a pure climber’s profile that is arguably the hardest world championship or Olympic course since the 1995 worlds in Duitama, Colombia. With so much extended climbing, plus tropical heat, and the pressure and prestige of the Olympic podium, everyone will be risking it all for a shot at gold.
Who will strike it rich? Here are our picks.
With so much vertical gain on tap in Rio, it’s no surprise that climbers are salivating at the rare chance to ride for Olympic glory. The course is so suited to a GC contender that a few top Tour de France riders, including 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali and 2015 third-place finisher Alejandro Valverde, are basically using the Tour as a three-week training camp for the Rio Games. This year, at least for some, gold is as good as yellow.
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“It’s a very hard course, ideal for climbers,” says Nibali, who won the Giro d’Italia in May and supported Fabio Aru at the Tour. “I had two goals this season. One was to win the Giro, and I did. Now the second is the Olympics. It’s a fascinating course and it’s ideal for me.”
In fact, all the top Tour riders have tweaked their racing and training calendars to leave something in the tank for Rio. Chris Froome won the yellow jersey, but he won’t want to miss out on a rare opportunity for gold.
Beyond the GC cohort are a slew of riders with both climbing chops and more one-day punch. Men like Ireland’s Dan Martin. A winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as the Volta a Catalunya, Martin may be the ideal type of rider for Rio.
“It’s a course that’s perfect for me,” Martin says. “The next Olympics in Tokyo will not suit me as well, so this will be the only chance I have to win an Olympic medal.”
Besides Martin, there is no shortage of favorites with a similar skillset. Five nations are able to field squads with the maximum allotment of five riders — Italy, Spain, Belgium, Colombia, and Great Britain — and each will have riders with a serious shot at winning. Spain has chosen Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez as its leaders, while Belgium will bring Philippe Gilbert. Italy will have Nibali, Aru, and Diego Rosa. Team GB brings Froome, Geraint Thomas, and Steve Cummings (a late swap for Pete Kennaugh).
Of all the favorites, Colombia will bring the most firepower and, with it, the most pressure to win. The South American nation has selected a dream team of 2012 Olympic silver medalist Rigoberto Urán, 2016 Giro d’Italia runner-up Esteban Chaves, 2016 Tour de Suisse winner Miguel Ángel López, and Sergio Henao, all riders capable of medaling.
In fact, Colombia’s collective strength might be it’s biggest challenge. There will be huge expectations for the Colombians to capture the gold medal in the first South American Olympic Games. “We have to have very good communication during the race,” Urán says. “We have a big chance to win, but we have to race a smart race.”
There’s a rare chance for a rider, or riders, to score twice in Rio. The time trial course is as climber-friendly as the road course, which means one thing is certain: A pure TT specialist won’t be able to win on the hilly course, where wind and heat will also be factors.
The closest anyone in the modern era has come to scoring two gold medals in one Games was when Jan Ullrich took gold in the road race and silver in the TT in Sydney 2000.
Could Rio be the year for the double? Someone such as Chris Froome could be a favorite for both. On the women’s side, hour-record holder Evelyn Stevens is as skilled at climbing as she is against the clock.
The Olympics are even more important for the women, who lack an iconic event like the Tour to annually capture the world’s attention.
American Megan Guarnier knew 2016 would be completely different when she heard about the Rio course. “My entire season is designed to be on great form for the Olympics and every race leading up to that point,” she says. “It’s a really hard course, which is great for me. The strongest rider will win.”
Guarnier is right. Unlike in major road races, where trade teams dominate tactics, Olympic races are contested by national teams. For the women, that means squads with up to four members. Team dynamics will play a much smaller role, meaning things will likely come down to a pitched battle between the strongest riders.
Expect a shootout between Boels – Dolmans teammates Guarnier, American Evelyn Stevens, and world champion Lizzie Armitstead. Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen, Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini, Swedish veteran Emma Johansson, and young Polish talent Katarzyna Niewiadoma will also be in the mix.
Two immense question marks also loom over these Games. Will defending Olympic champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prévot return to top form? After struggling with health problems for more than a year, Vos is showing signs of hitting her stride just in time for Rio. Still, the climb-heavy course isn’t her preferred terrain. Ferrand-Prévot, slowed by a tibial plateau fracture, will race both the road race and mountain bike events. Still, her 2016 campaign has been one of shocking anonymity given how she dominated the 2014-15 season.
Where the races will be won
All four Olympic road cycling events — the road races and time trials for both men and women — take place on various sections of the same route. The only differences are in the number of circuit laps required for each.
The road races open with a long stretch of flat road along Rio’s coastline. Then the first vertical punctuation: the Grumari Circuit, which passes twice over a ridge along the coast. The first narrow, twisting ascent will string out the field, but it is unlikely to prove decisive.
But there are cobbles! No, it’s not Paris-Roubaix. The cobblestones are smoother, but they should still make the run-in to the climb a bit more difficult. (The stones do not feature on the time trial course, where a path has been built around them.)
Next up is the Grota Funda climb. Like Grumari, it will likely sap energy but not be decisive enough to establish a winning move.
Once the racers finish the Grumari circuit, they’ll hit another flat stretch and enter the second circuit, which includes the climbs of Canoas and Vista Chinesa. The roadbook describes them as two separate climbs, but the descent between them is so short, about one kilometer, that they can be considered one. Canoas is steeper, rising abruptly from the beach. Starting from sea level, the pair of climbs rise to just over 1,600 feet across 8.9 kilometers, topping out on Vista Chinesa, an overlook some say offers the best views anywhere in Rio.
This loop is tougher than the first, and is likely to determine Rio’s winners. If not, the 12-kilometer stretch from the circuit’s end to the finish at Fort Copacabana offers the final opportunity to escape.
Both time trial events loop the lumpy Grumari Circuit, twice for men and once for women.
August 6: Road race
Four laps of Grumari circuit
Three laps of Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit
August 10: Time trial
54.5km (includes two laps of Grumari circuit)
August 7: Road race
Two laps of Grumari circuit
One lap of Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit
August 10: Time trial
29.8km (includes one lap of Grumari circuit)