Paris-Roubaix or Olympic gold?
Coming off the back of the world’s biggest bike race and with no WorldTour points on offer, just how relevant is the Olympic road race in today’s cycling calender? Does a gold medal compare with a victory at Paris-Roubaix?
I remember three things about the Olympic road race in Beijing. One, it seemed to go forever (245.5 kilometres – the longest in Olympic history although London will be longer), two, there was no one watching (Chinese security decided that it was unsafe to allow any spectators), and three, the obvious delight of Sammy Sanchez as he crossed the finish line, resplendent in the red, yellow and white jersey of the Spanish national team.
In a sport dominated by trade teams, indeed, dependant upon trade teams, it was refreshing to see the riders representing their respective countries. Yes, this happens at the world championships as well, but the Olympics are on a truly global stage, and the small matter of them only coming around every four years does make them special. Some riders have the opportunity to represent their countries at smaller events, such as the Commonwealth games, but they are against limited opposition. The Olympics are open to all.
That Sanchez reacted so jubilantly as he crossed the line should tell us something about the esteem a games medal is held in. The quality of the field chasing him tells us more. Fabian Cancellara was second, Alexandr Kolobnov was third and the chasing bunch contained Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers, Andy Schleck, Levi Leipheimer, Alejandro Valverde and Robert Gesink. All wanted glory, not for their employers – the ones who pay them to ride – but for national pride.
A quick check of the record books show recent Olympics have been dominated by some of the biggest names in the sport. In Athens Paolo Bettini sprinted to victory. In Sydney Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden made up the top three.
Take it seriously do they? You bet they do. It is a race that the biggest riders want to win. One of Lance Armstrong’s regrets was never having medalled at the games and Lance doesn’t usually do regrets.
Unlike the UCI’s calender of events, the Olympic road race has yet to fall prey to ‘non-traditional’ cycling nations. In fact Australia’s only ever medallist was Clyde Sefton, a boy from country Victoria, who claimed silver in Munich, 1972. He backed this up with Commonwealth gold two years later and was a two time national road champion (once as an amateur). Over the years he won multiple stages of the Herald Sun Tour (11) and claimed the general classification in 1981. He also rode with some success in Italy, counting among his team mates Francesco Moser and Felice Gimondi.
Hopefully Australia can add to that lean medal tally after this year’s event.
While Beijing was a mainly dull race lacking atmosphere, London should be the complete opposite. With the country riding on a cycling boom and with hometown heroes such as Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins huge chances to medal, the racing will be furious and the atmosphere electric. Whoever stands atop the podium on Saturday evening (AEST), will know they have been in a contest and any thoughts of it being ‘just another race’ will have been well and truly buried. This is a medal that the riders want, especially Cavendish, but there are plenty who will try and spoil his party.
There will be breakaways, there will be a chase, there will be a sprint, there will be falls and there will be bravery. But there will only be one gold medal. It may not be Paris-Roubaix, but it is the Olympic games. Mess this race up and you might not get another opportunity.
Footnote: Here is an interesting exercise – If you had the choice of winning Paris-Roubaix or the Olympic road race, which would you choose? I have been swaying from one to the other and can’t decide. Initially I was thinking Paris-Roubaix because of the history and the difficulty of winning such an event. But then I started thinking about standing on the top step of the Olympic podium, listening to the national anthem and watching my country’s flag being raised, all with a gold medal hanging around my neck. That sounds pretty attractive as well. Which would you choose?
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