It's that time in the 4-year cycle, when placing in races can be as much about impressing the national selectors as it is about the glory of the victory. For the women's peloton, the Olympics races are the biggest of the year, a chance to ride in front of the worldwide audience the men take for granted - in a race everyone understands.
And with fewer places up for grabs than their male counterparts have, the women will have a hard time just to get onto their teams. We've got until the end of May before we find out how many riders each nation will have - which gives us plenty of time for one of the fun parts of cycling fandom - speculation! I'll be telling you about the riders I think will be being considered for some of the biggest teams - and in the comments you can tell me what you think - especially if you can think of names I should have included!
I'm starting with the Australians, who, at the moment, will have a team of three riders for the Road Race, two of whom can enter the ITT. There's one rider who I think must already be a certainty for this team - and below the jump I'll tell you about the riders she's up against
Chloe Hosking really has to be there, I think. She's a tough, fast sprinter, who's been learning tactical skills from the canniest, fastest woman in the bunch, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. Hosking funded her own way to race in Europe, and has been improving every year, beating riders like Marianne Vos, Emma Johansson, Lizzie Armitstead and Kirsten Wild for her early season wins.
These will have given her a place on the long-list already - Australia have some clear critera for their "shadow team" on their Olympic website - they count results from 23rd March 2011 to 12th June 2012, and they're looking at performance in UCI-ranked races. When she won her stage at the Tour of ChongMing Island last year, Hosking was automatically nominated to the shadow team list - as are all Australian women who finish on the podium in 1.1 races; win a 1.2 race; come on the podium or in the top 5 of the GC in a 2.1 stage race; or win a stage or come on the GC podium in a 2.2. She's had plenty of those results already - and with the Road Race being mostly flat, apart from the two Box hill loops, half-way around the course, she seems a perfect choice for the sprinting options.
Shara Gillow must also be a sure-thing for the team, because she's the best bet Australia has for the ITT. In the 2011 World Championships she came 12th, but this is deceptive - her ride was just as the rain started, and I'd argue that she was one of the riders who suffered most from the weather. When I imagine who will finish in the Olympic top ten, she's definitely there for me, and her road skills are perfect for the hills and breakaways - and if a set of the time trial specialists such as Arndt and Pooley break away, Gillow can easily keep up with them. Her stage win in last year's Giro Donne - the biggest and most prestigious women's stage race - gives her extra nomination points, and her third place in Thüringen Rundfaht shows she can perform over all kinds of territory.
Amanda Spratt gets onto the nomination list through her win at the Czech Tour de Feminin last year, and because of her national champion's jersey - but she'll have a tough fight on her hand to take the coveted third spot on the Olympic team - because although her results might be better than other riders', the Australian system, like a lot of nations, has some discretionary criteria - taking into account past results, and riders who may have missed the opportunity to get results through sickness or injury. This particularly applies to the next two riders...
Rochelle Gilmore has been working towards Olympic qualification as her major goal for the last few years - but it suffered a major set-back when she was involved in a huge crash on Stage 5 of last year's Giro Donne, where she fractured a vertebra, broke her pelvis, some ribs and had to learn to walk again. She's made an amazing recovery (which you can read about on her blog), but it's not surprising that she hasn't had many results this year. She must be hoping that the selectors take her history and palmares into account - and she's not the only one.
Alexis Rhodes, last year's national road champion, also had a bad 2011, with a crash in Stage 2 of the EnergieWacht Tour that had her out of racing with concussion and other injuries, and then she needed surgery later in the year. But if there's one thing Rhodes knows about, it's overcoming adversity and coming back from trouble. She was one of the riders seriously injured in the 2005 crash that killed Australian cyclist Amy Gillet, and her career has involved more team collapses than is normal even for women's cycling... even if she doesn't make the Olympics this year, I hope her year is happy and successful.
The other discretionary criteria the Australian selectors will be using include taking into account riders who have "demonstrated ability to perform a team role as a domestique,servicing team leaders. Team results on courses having similar characteristics and profile to the proposed course for the 2012 Olympic Games will be considered in this assessment" - and here we come to Tiffany Cromwell.
You might have noticed Cromwell grinning her head off as she forced the break on the cobbles that helped her GreenEdge team-mate Judith Arndt win the Ronde van Vlaanderen - in fact practically every GreenEdge race report has included her work for the team - or you might remember her fronting the various team videos - her packing tips, for example (it starts off sensibly with Alexis Rhodes, and then gets to Tiffany...), or interviewing her team-mates. She's always had huge potential, but her career was thrown off course after the Skyter Shipping debacle left her team-less for 2010, and last year she never really gelled with Lotto, moving to Hitec Products UCK for the second half of the season - but it really feels like she's back, happy and working her socks off in her new team. But will it be enough for the selectors?
My final pick for the Aussie team is my longshot. You'll have noticed that the selection policy is all about UCI races - and Loren Rowney has been based in the USA for the season so far, so hasn't had any UCI racing - but her results in the sprinty races in Australia and in the USA mean she's definitely a rider to watch out for. When she did ride a UCI race - the 2.2-ranked Tour of New Zealand - she was on the podium twice, winning Stage 2 and coming third in Stage 3. If she doesn't make it to the Olympics this time around, I hope she gets to try her legs in Europe - she seems like a fun rider, definitely one for the future.
So those are my long-list - but I'm sure to have missed some important riders off, and you can tell me so in the comments! Keep an eye on them all in the coming month..
For more on these riders, check out:
- Loren Rowney's & Chloe Hosking's profiles on the Specialized-lululemon site, especially Chloe's blogs
- Alexis Rhodes, Tiffany Cromwell, Amanda Spratt & Shara Gillow at GreenEdge-AIS - and Shara's website
- Rochelle Gilmore's website & blog
And there's information about the Olympic road cycling rules and courses here