If ever the quality of women’s cycling were in doubt, today’s race laid that criticism to rest. The 140km circuit, starting and finishing on the Mall, had everything: punctures, crashes, dodgy drafting, attack after attack in the pouring rain and of course, silver for GB’s warrior queen, Lizzie Armitstead.
And if Armitstead was the queen, Pooley was Lord (or rather Lady) Commander of the Fleet, burying herself with an imposing display of tactical battleships. The Dutch and the British teams were clearly reading from the same playbook. Riders would launch leg sapping attacks, forcing a testing chase from the peloton. They were sizing one another up.
Climbing Box Hill
At the first ascent of Box Hill, the group stuck mostly together with the Orange Armada and the British staying out of trouble up front. Minutes later, Pooley fired a damaging attack out of the feed zone, prompting a series of responses from Vos and Arndt, the speed stringing out the field. Barely drawing breath, Pooley hared off again, splashing through the puddles and forcing daylight between the straggling clumps of chasers. The conditions were taking their toll, as riders began to slip in the spray and slick. Vos’ sidekick Loes Gunnewijk fell and though back to her feet in seconds, the field was beginning to fracture and twitch, with no rider able to build a substantial advantage.
This time, it was up to Amber Neben and the Italians to drive the pace as the Dutch regrouped. In an outrageous display of raw power, Gunnewijk attacked again, rounding Butterfly Bend with the pack hard on her heels and Pooley climbing like a dream as the crowd chanted her name. With around 35 riders in the front group, it was clear that Pooley’s persistent hammering of the Dutch was causing untold damage, Vos churning a massive gear to reach her every time.
Eventually, on the Pooley-led descent, Vos dug in and split the group, taking Russia’s Olga Zabelinskya, American Shelley Olds and Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead with her, leaving the battered remnants of the world’s top cyclists behind her. Pooley was dropped too, having presumably fulfilled her brief, attempting to exhaust Vos and deliver Armitstead unscathed and unspent into the breakaway with 40k to go.
Though the Dutch had parried each swing and thrown punches of their own, the British had shown more strength in depth, certainly later in the race. Without sufficient support, Vos was forced to absorb more and more of the moves, her ability to do so a testament to her formidable athletic abilities. The Dutch are lucky to boast such an extraordinary rider.
As the rain poured down on the capital, the speed of the riders and the enthusiasm of the roadside support showed no signs of waning. Olds had dropped after a puncture and the leading trio, without race radios had to take the bit between their teeth to ensure the gap remained unbridgeable. About 38 seconds seemed enough – maintained by some spectacular risk-taking on slippery corners, in standing water. It was almost very different, and the crowd gasped as Vos showcased superb bike handling skills, skiing towards the barriers with her machine kicking out from under her.
The sprint finish
At the red flag, with 1km left to race, Vos and Armitstead had forced the less experienced Russian to the front of the train. Armitstead seemed well placed, her half wheel length behind Vos allowing her to keep tabs on any early attack from Zabelinskya. But this half wheel proved crucial as Vos swung out to outsprint the Russian and Armitstead was left with a job of work to cross the course and round them both.
Jinking round Zabelinskya and with feet mashing the pedals, the two thrashed towards the line. In the end, it was Vos, with an inhuman effort, her face a rictus of pain, who crossed the line first, a bike length ahead of the lunging Armitstead.
Pooley, having suffered mechanical problems in the later stages of the race, rolled in at 40th position. She has reason to celebrate, though, for it was her commandeering display of a kind of pestering courage that wore out the Dutch and arranged Armitstead’s escape. Great praise too, should be handed to Loes Gunnewijk and Ellen Van Dijk, whose self-sacrifice allowed Vos to fulfil her dream.
There were a few surprises – Kristin Armstrong’s crashes saw her hang at the back of the field, out of the game, out of character. Despite Olds’ presence in the breakaway, Team USA could hardly get a word in edgeways and their marquee rider Stevens, was largely silenced. For circuit stalwarts Judith Arndt, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Emma Johannsson, the collective strength of the Dutch and British teams proved too much. Perhaps it is a good thing that World Champion, Bronzini did not make the podium, her drafting technique after a puncture testing the limits of the Commissaire’s patience. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was the 32 year-old Russian, earning an extraordinarily brave bronze, her single team mate of little help.
Cooke arrived in 31st, surely satisfied that her handful of well-timed attacks had turned the screw. Lucy Martin gave a muted performance as the race took a shape beyond her capabilities. She will no doubt appreciate the experience and the support.
There was one thing that hardly surprised today – Marianne Vos’ brutal statement of almost total control in women’s road racing. For the British however, we can take home silver and the promising thought that Vos might be mortal, and Armitstead her undoing.
Felicity Hawksley, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine