London 2012: Canada’s Clara Hughes ends up 32nd in Olympic road race
Neil Davidson, Canadian Press | Jul 29, 2012 11:02 AM ET | Last Updated: Jul 29, 2012 11:38 AM ET
LONDON — Marianne Vos of the Netherlands won the gold medal in the women’s road race, while Canada’s Clara Hughes failed to win her seventh Olympic medal.
Vos, the former world champion made a daring move past Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya over rain-slicked roads Sunday to emerge from the three-rider breakaway on the straightaway from Buckingham Palace.
Elizabeth Armitstead wound up with silver, Britain’s first medal of the London Olympics.
The former track cycling star came through under immense pressure from a nation gripped by cycling fever in the wake of Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France triumph.
“It was epic. It was awesome, though,” said a smiling, shivering Hughes.
“There were so many people on the course. We were wondering if people would come out and watch the women’s race, it was amazing. I can’t say enough about the support in the pouring rain.”
Christophe Ena/The Associated PressMarianne Vos of the Netherlands won the gold medal in the women’s road race, while Canada’s Clara Hughes failed to win her seventh Olympic medal.
Joelle Numainville of Laval, Que., finished 12th after losing control trying to avoid another fallen rider with 10 kilometres remaining.
“It was really slippery and it was really hard in the rain,” said Numainville. “I felt like my tire was slipping on a couple of corners. I crashed, it’s part of the game.
“It was so hard, but it was good racing.”
Denise Ramsden of Yellowknife meanwhile finished 27th.
It was a race that saw everything from sunshine to torrential downpours, crashes on wet, greasy pavement, plenty of punctures and a string of breakaway attacks.
The 140-kilometre women’s race was a condensed version of the men’s 250-kilometre trek, with 66 women from 35 countries competing. The field featured all three medallists and five of the top-six finishers from the 2008 event in Beijing.
The women started on The Mall, passing by Buckingham Palace and other tourist attractions before crossing Putney Bridge and heading out of the city for suburban Surrey and two laps around Box Hill.
Then it was straight back to the city and a finish down a stretch of The Mall.
The riders came out for the pre-race introductions to sunshine and drops of rain. A half-hour before the noon start local time, the clouds turned dark and there was thunder. Ten minutes later, it was raining.
The rain stopped just minutes before the start, prompting racers to hurl their balled-up rain jackets to the side. Still they had to contend with greasy roads.
“It was terrifying,” said Hughes. “It was like really technical, and the roads were pretty slippery. Crashes. I mean racing in the rain is not fun. This is like three out of three Olympic road races for me in the rain.”
At least three helicopters were hovering high above as the women set off, followed by a caravan of cars, vans, ambulances and motorcycles.
“Mentally they can be prepared for it,” Canadian coach Denise Kelly said prior to the race of the weather. “One of the big things they can do is eat more, fuel the body, make sure that they’re really well fuelled because if it does get a lot colder, you burn more calories when your shivering.”
Unlike the men’s road race Saturday, when Canada just had Ryder Hesjedal in the field and coach Gordon Fraser shared a team car with Russia and Austria, Canada had its own car for the women’s race.
Several women were slowed by early punctures as Janildes Fernandes Silva, one of two sisters on the Brazil team, launched an early solo break. It didn’t long, but it earned her some face time on camera.
The rain returned after some 40 minutes as the changeable weather conditions.
An hour into the race, Hughes was at the front of the peloton when Dutch rider Ellen van Dijk launched a pair of breaks in unsuccessful attempts to leave the peloton behind.
More punctures followed as riders had to negotiate pools of water on the road. Two-time world road champion Giorgia Bronzini of Italy found herself changing a tire as American Kristin Armstrong launched a break 75 minutes into the race.
Soon after, a bottleneck on a narrow stretch of road sent a Brazilian into a ditch and crashed several others at the back of the peloton.
Three Dutch attacked again and again, usually by van Dijk. Hughes remained in contact at the front of the bunch and the peloton pegged back all of the breakaway attempts in the first two hours.
Hughes led the way as they started the Box Hill climb for the first time, negotiating the narrow road lined with a dense wall of flag-waving fans.
Vos then attacked, stringing out the riders with 57 kilometres to go. Hughes remained in contact, moving back up the field when the peloton regrouped.
All three Canadians were near the front as the riders approached the Box Hill climb for a second time.
A nasty crash saw a rider go straight over Armstrong, the defending Olympic time trial champion, when she went down on a tight corner.
The lead group was getting smaller and it was further thinned as Vos attacked near the top. When they regrouped, Hughes was ever present near the front.
Then it was Britain’s Emma Pooley’s and Armistead’s time to make a move.
But it was Zabelinskaya who finally got in front near the summit, with Vos, Armitstead and American Shelley Olds joining her as a breakaway finally stuck.
With some 35 kilometres left, the foursome had a 23-second lead as they headed back to London in torrential rain.
Olds lost contact, leaving three up front with 28 kilometres left.
Italy and Germany looked to push the peloton pace but the three frontrunners increased their lead as they crossed over the bridge into London.
Hughes, a native of Winnipeg who makes her home in Glen Sutton, Que., retired from cycling in 2003 before taking the sport up again.
The six-time Olympian came to London with six Olympic medals: two bronze in cycling (road race and individual time trial) from the 1996 Games in Atlanta and a gold, silver and two bronze in long-track speed skating from the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Games.
The 39-year-old is only the fourth athlete to win medals at both Games, joining American Eddie Eagan, Norway’s Jacob Tullin Thams and Germany’s Christa Rothenburger-Luding.
On the domestic front, Hughes is a remarkable 35-time national champion in road and track cycling and speed skating.
Hughes was hard to miss, with her neon orange Specialized bicycle and matching helmet.
Kelly said the Canadian team “had several cards to play” in terms of strategy with Numainville’s sprinting prowess and Hughes’ ability to exploit a breakaway. Ramsden’s main role was to support the other two.
The women were allowed a maximum of four riders per country, depending on how many they qualified. The maximum was five for the men.