The world is waiting to see a showdown of the top women in professional bike racing in the road race at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. The demanding course will no doubt cast the backdrop for an all-out battle of the punchiest climbers from 38 nations for the gold medal.
The road race course is a doozy. It will take the 65-rider peloton on a 141km race along two circuits before finishing back along the coastal shores to Fort Copacabana. The women will race for 38km out to the first circuit held around the Grumari Natural Park. They will contest the 24.8km loop, which includes short, pitchy climbs and a cobbled section, twice.
At the 115km mark, the women will take on the second circuit, which is where the real race for gold is expected to happen. The Canoas/Vista Chinesa loop is 25.7km. It includes the main attraction; an 8.9km climb. Some have tipped the course for pure climbers because of this final ascent; others suggest it is better suited to punchy climbers who also have strong technical skills because there is a fast descent following the main climb, and then a 12km flat section to the finish line.
Marianne Vos (Netherlands)
Marianne Vos is the defending champion and the biggest question mark. After taking more than a year off due to injury and over training, she returned to the peloton this spring; her form was a major unknown.
She has had strong performances at Tour of California, Aviva Women’s Tour and Thuringen Rundfahrt, among other one-day races like La Fleche Wallone, La Course by Le Tour de France, but her strength has been far from what cycling expects from the three-time road world champion and Olympic gold medallist.
Still, Vos and her supporters have faith in her capabilities to defend her Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, the course in London 2012 is vastly different from the one in Rio, but the Vos of the past that we all crave to watch compete would have no problem challenging for victory in flat sprints or mountainous terrain. She has made it her mission to be ready for the Games and will arrive fresh off a training camp in the mountains in Italy - presumably ready to climb.
Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain)
Provisionally suspended for problems with her anti-doping whereabouts file just weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, world champion Lizzie Armitstead, successfully fought the charges in a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case and will be on the start line in Fort Copacabana as the favourite to win the gold medal.
During the past year, Armitstead has had a remarkable string of success. She won the World Cup and World Championship titles at the end of 2015 and this year took wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Cittiglio, Tour of Flanders, Boels Rental Hills Classic and the Aviva Women’s Tour. She effectively moved herself into the world-dominant space that Vos had filled in previous years.
She took the silver medal behind Vos in London. This year, when speaking to the press, she has made no bones about the fact that she wants to add the Rio road race victory to her list of accomplishments, even going as far in saying she would trade any result she has so far for Olympic gold.
Lizzie Armitstead and the three missed anti-doping tests - Podcast
Megan Guarnier (USA)
Megan Guarnier has already put a stamp on her career this summer as the second American in history to win the Giro d’Italia Femminile, after compatriot Mara Abbott.
She’s had stellar form all season but ramped up her success this spring with victories at Durango Emakumeen Saria and Euskal Emakumeen Bira, the overall win at Tour of California, US road championships, Philadelphia Cycling Classic and the overall title at Giro d’Italia Femminile. In doing so, Guarnier moved into the number one spot in both the Women’s WorldTour and the UCI World rankings.
Like Vos and Armitstead, Guarnier has proven that she can handle punchy and mid-length climbs but also has the sprint to finish off a small-group sprint with a victory. She's made the Olympic Games her all-encompassing goal.
Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands)
The Netherlands will have two cards to play with Vos as the wildcard and Anna van der Breggen as the go-to climber. Vos herself told Cyclingnews in July that van der Breggen was the stronger climber of the two and that the nation’s team tactics would cater to her skill set.
Van der Breggen is a cagey all-rounder, winner of the Giro d’Italia Femminile, second in the time trial and road race at the World Championships in Richmond last year, and winner of the gruelling La Fleche Wallonne for two consecutive years. She's a force.
The Dutchwoman is the kind of rider who has the power to out-climb her competition on both short and long ascents. She is also a breakaway threat, proven after her La Course by Le Tour de France and La Fleche Wallonne victories that she can hold off an entire chasing peloton if motivated enough by the final prize – and she wants nothing more than the gold medal in Rio.
Evelyn Stevens (USA)
Evelyn Stevens runs on pure grit and tenacity. Since the beginning of her career, she has wowed her teammates, rivals and cycling fans with her ability to pull off seemingly impossible results with remarkable performances.
Her road season started a little slower than usual, but that was primarily because she spent much of the off-season training to break the women’s UCI Hour Record, which she did by setting a new benchmark of 47.980 kilometres at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center Velodrome.
Her season progressed quickly with second place behind van der Breggen at La Fleche Wallonne, where she proved to be one of the biggest threats on a punchy course like the one in Rio.
She went on to take third overall at the Tour of California and surprised, even herself, by finishing second overall to teammate Guarnier at the Giro d’Italia Femminile. In Italy, she also secured three stage wins and spent three days in the maglia rosa.
She told Cyclingnews that this is the year she has to do everything right to get to Rio in good shape to contest for a medal.
Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland)
Katarzyna Niewiadoma is one of the brightest up-and-coming talents in women’s professional bike racing. She has won the youth classification in every stage race she has started this year including the Giro d’Italia Femminile where she was seventh overall and Elsy Jacobs where she won the overall title.
But despite being only 21 years old, she is one of the most powerful riders in the peloton. She is a proven one-day rider having finished second to Armitstead at Strade Bianche, seventh at Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Cittiglio and fourth at La Fleche Wallonne, all Women’s WorldTour events.
She is certainly a medal contender in Rio, but if that doesn't happen this year, it likely will during her bright future ahead.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy)
Italy’s golden girl, Elisa Longo Borghini is a podium contender for the Rio course based on its sheer difficulty. She seems to float along challenging terrain with ease and is almost always present among the top performers in the toughest bike races in the world.
This year, she was on the podium in three stages at the Giro d’Italia Femminile. Previous to that, she has had a handful of top-five finishes at La Fleche Wallonne, Strade Bianche, Tour of Flanders and Philadelphia Cycling Classic, all one-day road races that mark the potential for a rider to contest the one in Rio.
Italy stands a good chance of being on the podium with Longo Borghini in Rio.
Emma Johansson (Sweden)
Emma Johansson is Sweden’s best shot at a medal in Rio. Like Longo Borghini, this year she hasn’t won a major one-day race on the WorldTour, but she's been so close.
The closest she came to victory in a one-day classic was at the Tour of Flanders, which came down to a two-way battle against Armitstead. The sprint was so close between the two riders that it was almost hard to tell who won. It showcased her potential to read race tactics, help sustain a winning breakaway, and her ability to sprint against the best.
Johansson was also third at Strade Bianche and fourth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Cittiglio, but when it comes to stage racing, she’s a strong all-rounder, having won Euskal Emakumeen Bira.
If the road race in Rio comes down to a tactical game among the best climbers, you can expect Johansson to be there racing for gold. She has unfinished business with the Olympic Games.
Jolanda Neff (Switzerland)
There is a good chance that a small and select group of climbers will make it over the final climb out of Canoas/Vista Chinesa, and if that’s the case, the best descenders have a shot at an Olympic medal, and that includes mountain bike phenom Jolanda Neff.
Though she will likely be putting most of her energy into the cross country event, Neff was selected for Switzerland’s only available spot for the women’s road race as well. And rightfully so, she has dabbled in road racing on the Women's WorldTour this year with great success, notably placing third behind Armitstead and Johansson at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Cittiglio, 12th at Strade Bianche, 13th Gent-Wevelgem and 10th at La Fleche Wallonne. She also recently won the overall title at the Tour of Poland.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Republic of South Africa)
The start of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio’s spring campaign didn’t go as well as she had hoped. Illness prevented her from defending her titles at the South African championships, and she was disqualified for riding over a railroad crossing after the levels had begun to close at Strade Bianche.
Racing started to pick up for her, though, at Euskal Emakumeen Bira where she was top 10 in every stage and finished third overall. Her results continued to improve with a fourth overall at Elsy Jacobs, third at Boels rental Hills Classic, and she won a stage plus the general classification at Auensteiner-Radsporttage. And to her surprise, she finished second overall to Armitstead at the Aviva Women’s Tour.
Like, many of the women vying for a medal in Rio, Moolman-Pasio has tailored her racing and training programs for the Olympic Games and has told Cyclingnews that she will toe the start line intent on bringing home gold.
Wild card: Mara Abbott (USA)
Some suggest that the road race course at the Rio Olympics is best suited to the pure climbers in the field, and if that is the case, Mara Abbott has proven herself to be the best pure climber in the world.
Abbott, a two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia Femminile, is uncontested on mountain terrain. And she proved as much when she flew up the daunting Mortirolo during stage 5 of the Italian tour in July.
In a remarkable performance on that climb in Italy, she gained some five minutes on her rivals and moved into a healthy virtual overall lead. Unfortunately, she crashed on the descent to the finish line in Tirano, and lost most of that advantage, hanging on to a mere 37 seconds. Although she did take the maglia rosa, the time gap was not big enough and she lost the lead to time bonuses the following day.
In Rio, Abbott stands the best chance of all the climbers to make a winning move on the final 8.9km ascent. If she can gain enough time on the climb and keep her wheels on the pavement during the descent, she has a shot at the gold medal. If she doesn’t make it, she is sure to have teammates in the chase group behind prepared for a tactical battle to the line in Fort Copacabana.