Chess On Wheels: Why Cavendish Didn't Win The Olympic Road Race

If you're still struggling to understand why Team GB's Mark Cavendish went from favourite to 29th place, then read this essential guide to the the ins and outs of cycling...
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After Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky’s dominant display and emphatic victory in the Tour de France, complete with cycling being on the front pages of every newspaper, at the top of the news bulletins and combined with calls of "Arise Sir Wiggo", the media went into overdrive predicting a win for World Road Race Champion Mark Cavendish in front of Buckingham Palace, whipped the nation into a frenzy of expectation and it all went wrong. But is this a complete surprise?

Professional road racing is a subtly nuanced sport and it isn’t as simple as who is the ‘fastest, strongest and fittest’. It is tactical with shifting alliances between teams and riders. A case of ‘my friend is your friend - for now’. Or more usually, a case of ‘my enemy is your enemy’.

What makes the Olympic Road Race more complicated is that it is one of the rare occasions when the riders are riding for their country and not their team so the tactics are even more difficult to read and predict. Alliances will shift between countries during the race, but riders will also feel an obligation to their trade teammates as well. After all it is the teams who play their salary not their country.

Which brings us to Saturday and Team GB. This was effectively four members of Team Sky plus David Millar from Garmin Sharp and although the team was heavily weighted to the British Cycling/Team Sky crossover it doesn’t negate the point about shifting alliances in a race. Elite road racing is often described as ‘Chess on Wheels’ or, as well respected blogger ‘Inrng’ puts it, ‘Aerobic Poker’.

A case of ‘my friend is your friend - for now’. Or more usually, a case of ‘my enemy is your enemy’.

Team GB, Dave Brailsford, Rod Ellingworth et al had made it very clear that the plan was to ensure a bunch finish in order to give Cav the chance to unleash his sprint and win gold. That isn’t to say that Cav always wins every bunch sprint, he doesn’t. But if you were a betting man, you’d take the bet. He is extremely competitive, nerves don’t get the better of him and he has the ability to rise to the big occasion. So what went wrong?

They announced their plan well over a year ago before Cav became World Road Race Champion in Copenhagen. Again, like the Olympics, everybody knew what the plan was in advance, but unlike on Saturday, the course was flatter and wider and the race was ‘easier’ to control plus, and this is significant, they had a much larger team to be able to control it; eight riders as opposed to the five on Saturday.

If you remove Cav as the protected rider that is double the number. In that race it worked to perfection, they pulled back the break and then Wiggins did a massive turn on the front, which prevented any further attacks before the bunch sprint. But it was close and is worth noting that in the final corner, Cav either lost the wheel of his lead out man Geraint Thomas, or more likely made a split decision to follow some other wheels. So it doesn’t always go completely to plan. Either way it worked.

It has been shown beyond a doubt that British Cycling/Team Sky under Brailsford know what they are doing, far more than armchair critics and keyboard warriors, but there was chatter on the net beforehand along the lines of ‘There had better be a plan B’. Leaving aside the tactics, what if Cav punctures or crashes?

Elite road racing is often described as ‘Chess on Wheels’ or, as well respected blogger ‘Inrng’ puts it, ‘Aerobic Poker’.

Now the dust has settled it appears that there wasn’t one. It was Cav or nothing. In fact very similar to the Tour de France where it was clear that it was Wiggins or nothing. A case of ‘That’s the plan and we’re sticking to it’. Given that the TDF is over 3 weeks long you would think that there would be more margin for error, but in fact the opposite played out.

Once all the eggs were in the Cav basket they were committed. Or fucked. Depending which way you want to look at it. For the plan to work the race had to end in a bunch sprint, but the Olympic Road Race very, very rarely ends in a bunch sprint for all of the reasons mentioned above. So there’s a flaw right there.

I know Brailsford likes his numbers (power wattage etc) but you have to wonder about the wisdom of putting only four riders on the front of the bunch to control a 250km race for nearly the whole entirety of it. Cyclists great enemy is cutting through wind and air and the faster you go the harder it is. If you are riding behind in the bunch you are using 30% less effort or so, that’s why riders at the back are often freewheeling.

They let the traditional early break go away and then set about riding tempo to control it although once it got up to six minutes it was beginning to look a bit dodgy. But their relentless grind began to bring it back and around the 6th time up Box Hill the gap to the break was around 45 seconds and the plan looked to be on track.

‘There had better be a plan B’. Leaving aside the tactics, what if Cav punctures or crashes?

But this is where the problems started. If they caught the break at this stage with two or three circuits of Box Hill remaining they would be leaving themselves open to counter attacks, which would be difficult to control so they eased off the gas letting it stretch back out to around a minute confident that they could bring it back when they wanted to.

However the last time up Box Hill and the remainder of the circuit there was a flurry of attacks and danger men such as Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen got up the road. As another well respected commentator, Gerard Vroomen, predicted before the race, the only way to break Team GB’s stranglehold would be to apply a bit of chaos ‘therapy’ in the form of someone like Cancellara, and that a break would have to significantly larger than the chasers. And this is exactly what happened. The two breaks merged into what was now around a third of the field. You don’t want to let 32 of the strongest riders in the world go up the road when there is only five of you left. Team GB weren’t dominating the race anymore. Effectively they’d been dropped.

In hindsight what else could they have done?

Once they had decided, rather counter intuitively, to put all bets on Cav despite the likely unpredictability of the race they were stuck between a rock and a hard place, but here are a couple of options, both with potential drawbacks.

Team GB weren’t dominating the race anymore. Effectively they’d been dropped.

They could have put either Wiggins or Millar in the break. Wiggins because he could have sat at the back waiting for either Cav to come across or the race to come back together, then he could have done a long turn to prevent any more attacks a la Copenhagen last year. Millar the same with the added bonus that he could have taken a flyer himself, a la his stage win in this year’s TDF, although that bit wouldn’t have fitted the ‘Cav Plan’.

And the drawbacks go back to the plan. Because they only had four men to protect Cav it was a hard ask anyway. If one of those four was up the road it would have been even harder.

Another unknown is what would have happened if Wiggins had been in the break. The others may not have wanted him there and may have allowed it to get caught and another break to form. Which depending on when in the race that happened could have been good for the plan. Or not.

But who knows; see what I mean about unpredictability?

Another option, although it would have been very surprising and a little bit unlikely, is that Cav could have jumped across to the break and taken his chances. After all, Millar tweeted afterwards that Cav felt he had the legs to do it, but they decided to gamble on being able to bring the break back.

Which depending on when in the race that happened could have been good for the plan. Or not.

Had he done that, it would have been very exciting, particularly with Cancellara and Boonen up there. At that stage in the race it’s doubtful that they would have all just sat up just because Cav had arrived, but there certainly would have been plenty of attacks to get rid of him. As I said; exciting but unlikely.

So they were reduced to sticking with the plan and relying/gambling that the two other teams who were after a sprint finish would help with the chase. In fact, they had already discussed this with the German team of Andre Greipel before the start and the Germans had indicated that they would work. At one point Millar is seen reminding them of that arrangement. But when push came to shove they didn’t; another example of unpredictability. Who really knew that the Germans were secretly riding to come 27th?

The other team with an interest in a sprint finish was Australia with Matt Goss. But they had O’Grady already up the road and gambled on him. Not a bad shout; he came 6th.

So that was that. Each Team GB member was left putting in increasingly long panicky turns as they chased when they would have been better doing shorter, quicker and more efficient ones. Cancellara crashes. Boonen punctures and the Kazak and unrepentant dope cheat Vinokurov, sneaks the win and promptly retires. And Cav comes in 29th with a slow front wheel puncture.

It is worth remembering that, despite this summer’s euphoria, in cycling the favourite often doesn’t win. Which makes Wiggins’ achievements this year even more remarkable.

Roll on Wednesday’s Time Trial.

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