Blazin' Saddles

Men’s Olympic Road Race preview: Not a done deal

Blazin' Saddles

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Phase two of Team Sky's, sorry, Team GB's Summer of Domination™ gets under way on Saturday just six days after Bradley Wiggins rode into Paris with the yellow jersey.

Having largely reduced world champion Mark Cavendish to a road-rashed water-carrier and Cat.1 mountain novelty pace-setter, the Tour de France champion will look to repay the Manx Missile for his hard work — just like he did on the Champs Elysees last Sunday.

For Cavendish, the 2012 season was always about netting an Olympic Gold on home soil — and everything has been geared towards the 27-year-old triumphing in London. All roads lead to Box Hill (nine times) and The Mall for Cavendish, whose new sleek figure was carried out with those hilly circuits in mind (not to mention that Head & Shoulders advert on the TV).

With the world watching as Cavendish races on 'home soil' the last thing Team GB wants is for their man to be distanced on Box Hill and for the race not to come down to a bunch sprint.

Cavendish will have Sky team-mates Chris Froome, Ian Stannard and Wiggins in support as well as Garmin-Sharp's David Millar: four Tour stage winners, plus, in Stannard, the UK national champion. They'll have some familiar faces in the 144-strong peloton too — with both Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao representing Colombia, Bernie Eisel riding for Team GB — sorry, Austria — and Edvald Boasson Hagen turning out for Norway.

Inter-team alliances are pretty common in the Olympics, where with such small national teams it's hard to control a 250km race. They're not a given, mind: having already slogged away most of July for Wiggins and Cavendish, you'd expect Boasson Hagen (a rider ideally suited to the London course) to have had a few choice words when approached by Dave Brailsford with the metaphorical brown envelope.

It's also hard to see Australia's Mick Rogers working for Sky: after all, the route passes through Fulham and near Earls Court — two of London's largest Antipodean strongholds. If Rogers thought the boos from his countrymen were loud in the Alps, just wait until there's any suggestion of him pulling for Cavendish across Putney Bridge.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons why Christian Knees was not selected for Germany was over fears that the Sky rider's alliances may veer towards his paymasters.

Interestingly, it is that German team of Andre Greipel which may work alongside Team GB in a bid to keep the race under control and ensure a bunch sprint takes place in front of Buckingham Palace. Greipel, like Cavendish, is not the best climber and will struggle to stay on the front once the repetitive nature of the nine 15km loops of the 5% Box Hill get in full swing.

But Greipel has also beaten Cavendish head-to-head this season in sprints — and the powerful German will fancy his chances despite his rival's 'home' advantage. (If only there were gold medals for extraordinarily large thighs...).

Unlike Team GB, Germany have a Plan B in John Degenkolb. Should the youngster get in any break that forms, he would stand a good chance of winning. France too can play on the two tables — with Sylvain Chavanel one for the break and Arnaud Demare in the running for a sprint finish.

The break — and one will certainly form — will be a key factor in the race. Should the right riders get out in front and build up a big enough lead over the Box Hill circuits, it may well prove too hard to reel them in despite the flat 45km run-in to London.

The kind of riders who will be looking to get into breaks are (although not exclusively) Boasson Hagen, Belgium pair Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, Holland's Niki Terpstra, Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez, Irish family duo Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin, Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and that man Peter Sagan.

The Slovak tyro won the green jersey and three stages on his debut Tour — and this is ideal terrain for Sagan, even if he's Slovakia's sole rider. Not that that will faze the 22-year-old in a race that's shaping up to be (in the words of Gilbert) "everyone verses Mark Cavendish".

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Cav wins the London-Surrey Cycle Classic test event

You see, there aren't many teams who will want it to come down to a bunch sprint. Besides Britain and Germany, you can perhaps also count the USA (although Tyler Farrar looks more likely to distance the field on Box Hill than he does out-sprinting even Borut Bozic on his current form).

Australia will be wary of playing the Matt Goss card — primarily because Gossy (winless in the Tour) hasn't got the better of Cavendish since one stage in the Giro when his former team-mate crashed in the finale. (Although, let's not forget, Australia will be one man up when you consider the likely contribution of GreenEdge's Eritrean wildcard Daniel Teklehaymanot).

Talking of such virtual unknowns, in any Olympics or world championships you do have the jokers of the pack to factor in. Algeria's Azzadine Lagab, the poetically-named Byron Guama de la Cruz of Ecuador, Greek pocket-rocket Ioannis Tamouridis, Hong Kong rouleur Kam-Po Wong and Iran's fearsome Haghi-Sohrabi-Zargari trident: these riders may stand as much chance of winning the race as Namibia's Dan Craven, but they could well get their musette caught in their spokes and bring down large parts of the peloton.

Some of these chaps have probably never been to London before — let alone race alongside Cavendish in a peloton — so you can image the potential for carnage as they pass some of the city's famous landmarks.

If you want to consider a few viable outside names, then here are some: Sergey Lagutin of Uzbekistan, Michael Albasini of Switzerland, Vasil Kiryienka of Belarus and Russia-Costa Rica hybrid Andre Amador Bikkazakova.

The Olympic Road Race is a classic in many senses: for its similarity to the long spring monuments, and also for the unpredictable drama that it promises. Should Cavendish win, we'll all be saying "I knew it". But a strong break forming and Cavendish not being a factor could also be a distinct possibility — and one which, in hindsight, would not be a surprise.

If Team Sky/GB can pull it off, then a win for Cavendish would be yet another cherry on the top of a resplendent British summer trifle. Despite the storms predicted on Friday, things should cheer up in time for the race on Saturday — and while it won't be as hot as the past scorching week in London, the sun should be out over the North Downs in Surrey.

There is a growing sense that the sun will be shining on Sagan come the finish, however. The 22-year-old with a penchant for swashbuckling wins is having an outstanding season — and (at least in his mind) must be motivated at the prospect of standing atop the Queen's balcony overlooking The Mall while being given a gold medal and a kiss by quasi-royal podium girl Pippa Middleton...

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