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Lizzie Armitstead opens Team GB's account with silver in women's Olympic road race
As they swung into The Mall, Lizzie Armitstead knew that a medal was in the bag but that the formidable Dutch woman Marianne Vos stood between her and gold.
The Russian rider, Olga Zabelinskaya, was clearly tired and, knowing that she would collect bronze no matter what, set the pace in the finishing straight.
Vos opened up her sprint, Armitstead responded but could not overtake her rival. A silver medal was her reward for an aggressive and determined performance in terrible conditions. It was also Britain’s first medal of the 2012 Games.
The teeming rain meant the closing stages were reminiscent of the day Nicole Cooke won gold in Beijing four years ago.
It was fitting that the Netherlands and Great Britain took gold and silver because they were the most adventurous teams in the 140- kilometre race. Zabelinskaya merited her bronze medal too, because it was her attack as they went over the top of Box Hill for the second and final time that prompted the winning move.
After a tentative start, the race exploded into life when they reached Box Hill for the first time. On the approach to the climb, the team from the Netherlands was very active at the front, with Ellen Van Dijk trying to break clear several times. Vos also attacked hard, forcing a split in the bunch, which succeeded in slimming down the group as Team GB lost Lucy Martin on the climb.
Emma Pooley was one of the other riders to frequently probe off the front. As Armitstead explained after the race, the plan was to make the race fast to try to put some of the pure sprinters in difficulty on the climb. The tactic worked because as soon as Pooley made a move, someone was sure to follow. At one stage Pooley and Vos got clear with a couple of other riders.
While Pooley was piling on the pressure at the front, Cooke misjudged a corner and had to chase back to the bunch before the second climb of Box Hill, Armitstead was looking very comfortable. She had kept out of danger and declined the opportunity to get involved in the moves until she thought the time was right.
And that moment came when Vos accelerated extremely hard. Armitstead moved out of the bunch and rode across the gap with apparent ease.
By now, Team GB’s efforts were beautifully synchronised. Once Vos and Armitstead and the small group of riders who responded to them had been pulled back, Pooley launched another fierce attack. When she was brought back, Armitstead went again. It was the classic deployment of the old-fashioned one-two.
Only once everything was back under control again did the pace ease a bit, which allowed Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia to go clear.
Zabelinskaya, the 32-year-old daughter of Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, the 1980 men’s Olympic road race champion, was a dangerous rider to allow any leeway.
The American rider Shelley Olds, a stage winner at the recent Giro Donne in Italy, spotted the potential of Zabelinskaya’s move, as did Armitstead and Vos.
Sudddenly, with around 45 kilometres to go, the race had its most potent-looking collaboration – four top-quality riders from powerful nations. The Germans and the Italians were the big teams to miss out.
The rain began to fall heavily, making the descents tricky. Being out in front was the safest place to be, although Olds suffered the misfortune of a puncture that left three riders out in front.
It could have been a tricky phase of the race. The leaders knew they would each get a medal if they managed to defend their 30-second lead.
But they had less leg-power to call upon. By now they were fully committed and the gap edged up second by second. With 20 kilometres to go, it began to look like they would contest the finish.
With 15 kilometres to go, they had increased their lead to 45 seconds and as they crossed the Thames it appeared that the race was between Vos and Armitstead for Zabelinskaya was clearly tired and had been missing turns on the front.
Inside the final two kilometres, Zabelinskaya tried to accelerate but she had nothing left. The other two left her to lead out the sprint, with Vos tucked into second position and Armitstead on her wheel.
Vos made her move and Armitstead responded but was unable to draw level with the Dutch woman.
Four years ago in Beijing, Vos won an Olympic gold medal in the points race in the velodrome. Ever since she had been dreaming of winning the road race.
After winning the World Championship road race in 2006 she has been runner-up every year since, so she must have feared the worst.
And as for Armitstead, she rode a tactically strong race and seized the initiative when she had to, she just found that Vos had the faster finish.
But when she reflects on winning a silver medal at the age of 23, she may wonder what might have happened had British Cycling’s Talent Team not visited her secondary school one day in 2004 and introduced her to competitive cycling.
1 Netherlands VOS Marianne 03:35:29
2 Great Britain ARMITSTEAD Elizabeth 03:35:29
3 Russian Federation ZABELINSKAYA Olga 03:35:31
4 Germany TEUTENBERG Ina 03:35:56
5 Italy BRONZINI Giorgia 03:35:56
6 Sweden JOHANSSON Emma 03:35:56
7 United States of America OLDS Shelley 03:35:56
8 France FERRAND PREVOT Pauline 03:35:56
9 Belgium de VOCHT Liesbet 03:35:56
10 France BIANNIC Aude 03:35:56
11 Poland PAWLOWSKA Katarzyna 03:35:56
12 Canada NUMAINVILLE Joelle 03:35:56
13 Republic of Korea NA Ahreum 03:35:56
14 Netherlands van VLEUTEN Annemiek 03:35:56
15 Belarus AMIALIUSIK Alena 03:35:56
16 South Africa MOOLMAN Ashleigh 03:35:56
17 Estonia TREIER Grete 03:35:56
18 New Zealand VILLUMSEN Linda Melanie 03:35:56
19 Sweden FAHLIN Emilia 03:35:56
20 Finland SUNDSTEDT Pia 03:35:56
21 Luxembourg MAJERUS Christine 03:35:56
22 Slovenia BATAGELJ Polona 03:35:56
23 Brazil FERNANDES SILVA Clemilda 03:35:56
24 United States of America STEVENS Evelyn 03:35:56
25 Russian Federation ANTOSHINA Tatiana 03:35:56
26 El Salvador GARCIA MARROQUIN Evelyn Yesenia 03:35:56
27 Canada RAMSDEN Denise 03:35:56
28 South Africa van de WINKEL Joanna 03:35:56
29 Belgium POLSPOEL Maaike 03:36:01
30 Italy GUDERZO Tatiana 03:36:01
31 Great Britain COOKE Nicole 03:36:01
32 Canada HUGHES Clara 03:36:01
33 Germany WORRACK Trixi 03:36:04
34 Italy CANTELE Noemi 03:36:04
35 United States of America ARMSTRONG Kristin 03:36:16
36 United States of America NEBEN Amber 03:36:20
37 Germany ARNDT Judith 03:36:28
38 Russian Federation PANKOVA Larisa 03:37:22
39 Australia GILLOW Shara 03:37:22
40 Great Britain POOLEY Emma 03:37:26