Thursday, July 26, 2012

2012 Olympics Road Race Preview

Surely Great Britain (GB) sprinter Mark Cavedish (Team Sky)'s stage wins in the Tour de France have earned him top listing in most sports bets to win the Olympics Road Race on his team's home roads in London. With Team Sky effectively acting as the surrogate GB national team, that means that they have honed their sprinting train in the TdF. London's course has earned a reputation as being flat, and therefore would be advantageous for a sprinting team.

Photo by SurreyNews.  Distributed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

But poring over maps and profiles doesn't bring one closer to the experience and insight from riding it. For that, we tip our helmet to Fabrizio Viani who is a London local sharing his experience on his excellent blog.

What does it take for Mark Cavendish to win, or conversely, what does it take to beat him? Here's our take on the race, and predictions of the race.

Unlike the classics, Worlds and Olympics courses are typically one-off routes.
This means they are much less understood and much less tested. In some years, strong teams take the race by its horns and keep their control. In other years, a punky competitor may be able to pull an upset.

Team sizes are much smaller than usual, distribution of cycling abilities more variable.
With all due respect to third- and fourth-tier cycling countries, they pose serious hazard to first- and second-tier cycling teams. In the London race, the course takes the race from wide boulevards of central London to narrow roads as they wind in the SW direction. Cavendish and all other contenders will have to keep safe as the competition heats up and lesser riders are bound to cause crashes.

There will be no race radios.
This means that breakaways are bound to be kept close, which means a high pace in the peloton but at the same time smaller time gap to bridge over. There is another factor also, which is schedule. We discuss this in the next point.

The men's race goes first, ahead of the ladies' race.
Unlike in World Championship races where the elite men go last (after the juniors, U23s, and elite women' races), London will see the men's race on Saturday and the women's race on Sunday. Coaches and riders alike will be less informed than they usually are. We think that this will lead to significant jittering and defensive riding which means a high tempo to keep breaks within sniffing distance.

Bottlenecks on the course will make this a positioning race.
Excepting the lack of cobbles and sharpness of hills, think of the course as more like the Ronde van Vlaanderen or perhaps Brabantse Pijl. There are several sections of two-lane narrow English roads. This is something very different from last year's Worlds Championship course in Denmark where an assertive team GB delivered Cavendish to victory in what many viewed as a dress rehearsal for the London Olympics race.

A positioning race dictates different tactics than Denmark. 
The Olympics race will be a positioning race rather than a breakaway race: attrition will whittle the front group down to 20-30 riders who will contend the finale. If Cavendish fails to be in this front group, he will find himself out of contention. A front group of 20-30 riders will do everything they can to keep Cavendish out of contention.

On a related topic, here's our estimate of how other teams will play their cards:

  1. Germany
    With ace sprinter Andre Greipel fresh off several stage wins in the Tour de France, Germany is the only strong team whose interest is aligned with Team GB. That is, they want a controlled sprint finish.
  2. Australia
    Unfortunately for the ambition of Germany and GB, Australia knows that a straight-on sprint finish doesn't favor their sprinter(s). Best case scenario for them would be for Cavendish (and Greipel) to get dropped, but for Matthew Goss to survive the onslaught, akin to how Milan-Sanremo played out in 2011. 
  3. Belgium
    Similarly, Belgium's Tom Boonen may not be able to match pure sprinters head-on, but he has incredible resilience and staying power. Expect Belgium to play their cards similar to Australia. 
  4. Slovakia
    If this weren't a nations-based competition, we would say that Peter Sagan is an excellent chance. But being a Slovak (even if a fast one at that), he may be handicapped. The good news for Sagan is that the way Australia and Belgium play their cards may be to his benefit in the end, given that he can survive a fast ascent as well as Boonen can. 
  5. Italy
    Coach Paolo Bettini hasn't been in the news lately, and for good reason. His team doesn't really have a credible contender. This is too bad, given that Bettini himself is a former Olympic champ. Months ago he meekly said that the race will be a "lottery." With Vicenzo Nibali the key man, but with a gaggle of sprinters on the team, we think team Italy is there to speculate. 
  6. Switzerland
    Nary a peep has been uttered about team Switzerland with Fabian Cancellara, but we think he's a dark horse for this race. He has shown incredible staying power in long races, and if a leading group of a dozen or so hesitates, he can put in a serious dig at victory. The fact that he has shown this in high-profile races seems to be below most people's radar screens for some reason. 

Sprinting after a 250-km race is different from sprinting after a 150-km race.
To further reinforce this point we cite numerous examples from Milan-Sanremo and previous world championships. Such a long race requires classics-like endurance and ability to keep one's head cool at the end of the race. This is exactly how Cadel Evans managed to pull an upset in the 2009 World Championship in Mendrisio and Thor Hushovd won the 2010 World Championship in Geelong. Keep in mind that Mendrisio was a 262-km race with 4,655-m elevation gain, Geelong was a 263-km race with our estimate of 2,700-m elevation gain, Copenhagen was 266-km long with what we think was elevation gain of just over 2,000-m, and the London course is a 250-km race with 2,100-m elevation gain. So with a hard race, it is possible that the race does not end in a massive sprint, but rather competition among a select group.

Concluding thoughts.
Based on all of the above, we have to say it is hard to bet against Cavendish being the top bet for the race. Bets that we have seen online tend to have Mark Cavendish on top, followed by Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, at ratio of 1-3-5. With all due respect, we think these website are crazy. If we were to run a betting site, we would list:

  1. Mark Cavendish (Great Britain) at 1/1.2.
  2. Tom Boonen (Belgium) at 3/3.6.
  3. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) at 4/4.8.

That's right: we think we might see a re-run of Madrid 2005 when Tom Boonen ended up the last strong sprinter after the others were dropped (much to the anger of Paolo Bettini). Plus, we think that Fabian Cancellara will be there in the finale.

What about the popular Peter Sagan? We think there is too much uncertainty regarding how he can survive a nations-based race. Until team Slovakia improve their riding, we think the betting odds in his favor are too optimistic. If it were up to us, we'd give him 10/12.

What do you think of our assessment, are we out of our minds?? Share your thoughts below.

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