After the glory of Bradley Wiggins' Tour de France victory last week, it was back down to Earth for British cycling on the opening weekend of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Saturday's men's road race, which came just six days after many of the world's top riders had completed the gruelling three-week Tour de France, was expected to see Wiggins and his team mates combine to set up Mark Cavendish to sprint to victory in the 250 km race. Instead, it was the Kazakhstani rider Alexander Vinokourov who sprinted away from the Colombian Rigoberto Uran to claim his second Olympic medal, 12 years after winning silver in Sydney.
The 38-year-old Vinokourov is a colourful and controversial figure. An exciting and combative rider, like so many cyclists of his generation, his career has been overshadowed by doping. Back in 2007, Vinokourov entered the Tour de France as one of the favourites for overall victory, but after falling in the opening week, he suffered in the mountain stages, losing time and falling out of contention. What followed was a turnaround in fortunes that proved too good to be true as he unexpectedly won the individual time trial by over a minute, before powering to a mountain stage victory a few days afterwards. Just 24 hours later, it was revealed that the Kazakh had tested positive for blood doping. Vinokourov was stripped of his stage wins, handed a two-year ban and his Astana team withdrew from the Tour.
Having initially announced his retirement after his receiving his ban in 2007, 'Vino' came back in 2009, before breaking his femur in the 2011 Tour de France, when he once more announced his retirement. Again, Vinokourov went back on his word to ride this year, although it is widely expected that he will now retire after the Olympics. "After so many crashes, returning to cycling was difficult, but I was still hoping for a good result," Vinokourov said afterwards. "Today a dream has come true."
The same cannot be said of Wiggins and Cavendish et al, who were cheered on by an estimated one million people lining the course that wound its way through southeast England. Team GB entered the race very much in the spotlight after several of its riders dominated the Tour de France earlier this month. With Cavendish widely expected to claim victory if the race finished in a bunch sprint, other riders were keen to attack, knowing the onus would fall on Britain's five-man team to try and reel in any breakaways. It was a tactic that paid off, and as the riders climbed Box Hill for the last time, a group of escapees found themselves almost a minute clear of the main field. The British team gave chase, but as Vinokourov himself said afterwards, they seemed tired, their mammoth exertions over the previous few weeks finally catching up with them. Instead it was left to Vinokourov and Uran to break clear from the leading group with around 10 km left and take gold and silver, ahead of Norwegian Alexander Kristoff.
Both Cavendish and his team mate David Millar lamented the tactics of other teams after the race. "(They) were content that if they didn't win, we wouldn't win. The Aussies just raced negatively," said Cavendish, never afraid to speak his mind. Millar agreed, but said they had expected it. "We lost out, but a lot of teams lost out by planning against us. We can't complain because everyone knew what we were going to try and do, so it was their job to derail us. Which they did."
The weekend was not all doom and gloom for Team GB, though, as Lizzie Armitstead claimied silver (Britain's first medal of the 2012 Olympics) in the women's road race, behind Holland's Marianne Vos. Her male counterparts, meanwhile, will turn their attentions to the time trial later in the week. Once again, all eyes will be on a British rider, but this time teamwork won't be an option and it will be Bradley Wiggins hoping to cap what would be the greatest year of his career.