RIO DE JANEIRO—Before the Olympic cycling road race on Saturday, Greg van Avermaet of Belgium rated his chances of winning at 5%.
Six grueling hours of competition later, he stood by his guess. Except one thing had changed: van Avermaet now had a gold medal.
“I still would give myself a 5% chance,” he said. “On a [course] like this, I had to be really lucky… I’m not going to say I was the strongest guy from the race.”
The course was booby-trapped from the start. The 148-mile slog was designed for small, powerful mountain specialists, who could also negotiate sections of cobbled roads, nasty technical descents, a thick layer of heat, and a peloton full of inexperienced riders. Making matters more complicated, they would have to do it without the support of their regular professional teams.
In other words, it was never set up for a rider like van Avermaet. The six-foot, 31-year-old Belgian is normally a specialist of the spring classics—those bumpy, windblown one-day races through the mud of Belgium and the snow of Italy. Not the kind of places that make you a likely winner on Copacabana Beach.
And yet, after a dramatic final 20 kilometers back into the heart of Rio, he crossed the line first ahead of Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark, who made a late attack alongside him, and Rafal Majka of Poland, who ran out of steam.
The turning point came when pre-race favorite Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and Sergio Henao of Colombia both crashed on the third and final descent off the Vista Chinesa climb. With both of them gone, the exhausted Majka was left to fade down the stretch.
“Everyone was taking risks and some guys went a little over the limit,” van Avermaet said. “I took a little bit of risk, but not too much and I think this was the best decision. Because if you’re on the ground the race is over.”
The Olympic legacy runs deep in the van Avermaet family. His father, Ronald Van Avermaet, also competed in the road race at the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow and kept the suit he’d been given by the Belgian national team long after the closing ceremonies. His trip to the Olympics was such a point of pride that the senior van Avermaet wore the suit at his wedding.
As a teenager, however, Greg van Avermaet didn’t plan to make a career on the bike. He was a talented soccer goalkeeper on the fringes of club in the Belgian top division. But when that door closed, cycling emerged as his best shot in sports. The Belgian tradition of one-day races was calling his name. He is now his country’s first gold medalist in the road race since 1952.
Van Avermaet had hinted that he might be capable of breaking out of the classic mold with his stage-winning performance at this summer’s Tour de France. By winning Stage 5 in a solo breakaway through the medium mountains, he earned his first career day in the leader’s yellow jersey.
“It’s almost like he’s broke through and transitioned to being another type of rider,” said American Brent Bookwalter, who rides professionally with Van Avermaet for the BMC Racing team. “He’s always been a sort of northern Classics one day racer but seeing the stuff he did in the mountains…he’s besting world class climbers and this is a big dude from Belgium who rides the cobblestones.”
Saturday’s race blew apart 20 kilometers from the finish with all the usual suspects still in contention: Nibali and Chris Froome of Great Britain, flanked by their respective lieutenants Fabio Aru and Geraint Thomas. Majka and Henao, the climbers, were in there, too. Van Avermaet was lurking behind them.
But as the punchy attacks began, the group busted up. Froome didn’t do too much to stay in it, since his plan was always to focus on the Olympic time trial on Aug. 10.
He wasn’t alone. The sheer difficulty of the climbs had left most of the other hopefuls struggling to finish. Only 63 of the 144 starters made it to the line. “You’re just getting over them,” Ireland’s Dan Martin said of the hills. “Having such a hard circuit always negates the racing.”
Add to that a peloton loaded with riders below the top-tier of bike racing and the conditions become even more challenging.
“That was a strange race. All year, we race with a different peloton,” Dutch rider Bauke Mollema said. “There was some guys in a peloton, they don’t know how to ride a bike.”
Early exits piled up among the least experienced riders, especially around the 100-kilometer mark. The result was that a small Olympic party developed by the sand of Copacabana, far from the battles on the Vista Chinesa. Sitting in their full kits with their bikes propped up, almost a dozen riders from around the world sat before a giant screen, mingling with the fans.
Abderrahmane Mansouri, a second-tier rider from Algeria, was among them, still in awe of rubbing elbows with the elites. He bailed out midway through the race because he’d never even completed 200 kilometers, he said. Still, if he had zero chance of winning gold, watching van Avermaet do it on a sunny afternoon from the most famous beach in Brazil proved to be decent consolation.
“I would have liked to finish,” he said. “But this is OK.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at email@example.com
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