Yet in Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Tim Wellens, Serge Pauwels and Laurens De Plus, the team have riders well capable of animating the race and achieving glory if events unfold in their favour. For Pauwels, who had a strong Tour de France for Dimension Data and is competing in the Olympics for the first time in his career, a lot will come down to the unpredictable nature of the race and a degree of flexibility within the national teams.
“We’ve got a plan and hopefully we can stick to it as much as possible. There’s still enough room for us to be flexible because that could be necessary in a race like this,” Pauwels told Cyclingnews from the athlete’s village in Rio.
“There’s two elements to the race. On one hand it’s a very demanding course with a lot of altitude meters and climbing that suits only a few riders. On the other hand you’ve got those small teams and this ‘classics-racing’ style. They’re two totally different elements but they can make the race challenging but also give opportunities to a lot of riders because it’s not such a traditional race.”
Belgium has qualified a five-rider, the maximum allowed, and they are brimming with experience.
“I can’t really talk too much about tactics but we don’t really have a favourite,” Pauwels added.
“What we need to do is try and anticipate the moves. We have three riders who have proved that they can win races at this level with Greg, Tim and Philippe and then we have me who can also race aggressively and then this young rider, Laurens, who is a really promising climber who can support us.”
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Strength of Great Britain
With such small teams involved in the race measuring efforts will be vital. No other team knows this better, perhaps, than Great Britain. They dictated the pace throughout the majority of the 2012 race, on an easier parcours – and were attacked on the final lap. Pauwels points to the British squad as one of the strongest in the race once more as they look to win a medal in the road race for the first time since Max Sciandri claimed bronze in Atlanta in 1996.
“You’ve got Team GB with Froome and I think everyone will look to them because with riders like Stannard they have riders who will really sacrifice their chances. There’s not that many domestiques in the race, maybe Evriti in Spain, maybe De Marchi for Italy, so Team GB really have a couple of really big riders who suit the course well and they’ll probably be the key team.”
While the nature of the race may be hard to predict, Pauwels is at least certain that his form is heading in the right direction. The Belgian was on the front foot throughout the Tour de France, featuring in several breaks and finishing second on the stage up Mont Ventoux.
“I think my form is pretty good. I felt tired towards the end of the Tour but then I bounced back and started to recover the week after and felt strong in San Sebastian. When you come out of the Tour it gives you that sixth gear and I think it will be the Tour riders, in theory, who should decide the race on Saturday.”
And if he needs any inspiration he has it from watching Belgium win their last medal in the men’s road race, when Axel Merckx skipped off the front to take bronze in Athens in 2004.
“I remember watching it and I remember his attack to take third. That was an amazing performance and if we can do something like it would be fantastic not just for the rider in question but for the our entire country.”