Cavendish sputters as British team falls short in cycling road race
Sprinter Mark Cavendish was the favorite heading into the final men's road race
Instead, Cavendish and his British team slowed to a loss in the waning moments
Alexander Vinokouov and Rigoberto Uran won to cap the British disappointment
LONDON -- With apologies to Winston Churchill, seldom in the course of human events has so little been heard from so many.
The massive crowds gathered along the Mall today, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, could hardly have been more muted in the final moments of the men's cycling road race. They'd arrived with such high hopes! Flush with optimism following Brad Wiggins' win of the Tour de France; on a royal roll in the wake of last night's triumphant Opening Ceremonies, tens of thousands of proud Brits thronged the Mall, Prince Charles and Camilla among them, fully expecting a victory from Mark Cavendish, the current world champion and self-declared "fastest man on two wheels."
The Manx Missile -- he hails from the Isle of Man -- had been a team player during the Tour, fetching water bottles for Wiggins and otherwise sacrificing his personal ambitions. Yes, I know, he did win three stages. But he usually wins five or six.
Yes, he'd been the only member of Great Britain's track cycling team not to medal in Beijing, four years ago. But that would set right on Saturday. This was to be Cav's day. It was his turn. With the velo-version of the Dream Team keeping him out of the wind, pacing him over Box Hill, the short, sharp ascent the riders went over nine times, the Missile would be delivered to the Mall at the front of the bunch, and he would dominate the field sprint, as usual.
It occurred to very few people that there wouldn't be a field sprint. With the crowd at the finish line waiting for Cavendish, they were instead subjected to the sight of a Khazak and a Colombian, Alexander Vinokourov and Rigoberto Uran, who took gold and silver, respectively, after bolting from a group of 32 breakaways. Just under a minute later, Norway's Alexander Kristoff outsprinted 22-year-old American Taylor Phinney, who then sat beside his bike just beyond the finish line, the picture of disappointment.
"Some would call fourth place the worst [possible result] at an Olympic Games," said Phinney, who interrupted his lament long enough to give props to American teammates Timmy Duggan and Tejay van Garderen, who'd buried themselves on his behalf. The Olympic bar in his family is pretty high: Phinney's parents, Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney, won gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. "I don't remember who came in fourth place four years ago."
It was tough to say whom was more crestfallen: Phinney or the somewhat spoiled fans of British cycling, who watched their squad control the race from the front for most of the day, only to tire, it seemed on the final ascent of Box Hill.
It was then, said Vinokourov through a translator, "I realized the British team was not riding very fast anymore, getting tired."
And so he attacked, as he is hardwired to do. Vinokourov, 38, is a controversial figure: he was thrown out of the '07 Tour de France for blood-doping. (His father had accompanied him on that Tour, arousing suspicions that Vino had transfused the older man's blood. Had I done that, riposted the combative Khazak, I would've tested positive for vodka.) But he is also one of the most riveting riders in the pro peloton, a predatory, risk-taking opportunist who once shared his motto with a group of cycling writers:
"When I feel good, attack," he said in his signature monotone mumble. (He is as still and stoic off the bike as he is animated and interesting on it). "When I don't feel good, I attack."
After hopping aboard a breakaway sparked by the Fabian (Spartacus) Cancellera, Vino barely escaped going down in the pileup when the Swiss strongman took a poor line around a right hand turn and crashed heavily and head-first into the barriers. Having escaped unscathed, Vino punched the gas, escaping with only Uran, whose inept tactics in the final 200 meters ensured a gold medal for the man from Petropavlovsk.
Is there any praise more damning than to be described as a Sure Thing? That burden proved too onerous for cycling's Dream Team. Cavendish, Wiggins, Chris Froome (who finished second in the just-finished Tour de France), David Millar and Ian Stannard were brilliant for about 200 kilometers. It was their misfortune that the race lasted 250.
In the end, they needed help controlling the tempo up front, and didn't get it. With team after team attacking -- Italians, Spaniards, Swiss, Belgians -- the Brits soldiered on. But it became apparent, with the Cancellara/Vinokourov group up the road, that Cav & Co would not reel the escapees in by themselves. They needed help. It wasn't forthcoming.
"Other teams were content that if they didn't win, we wouldn't win," Cavendish told The Guardian. "We expected it. If you want to win you've got to take it to them. We controlled it with four guys for 250km and we couldn't do more."
Hoping to salvage a sprint finish, Germans Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb put in some time on the front. But "they worked for about five minutes and blew up," said Belgium's Tom Boonen. Like spent rocket boosters tumbling into space, exhausted British riders peeled off, thrashed: Froome, then Millar, then Wiggins, sealing the fate of Cavendish, who must now wait another four years for that elusive medal.
Making small talk with the Queen last fall at a medal presentation, he'd had asked for her support at the end of the road race. "I told her to give me a cheer when we come past," Cavendish later recounted.
There would be no appearance from the Queen, who was exhausted, perhaps, by her exertions the previous evening. Had her Majesty raised her voice in Cav's support, as he rolled across the line in a supremely anticlimactic 29th place, it would've carried a surprisingly long way.