Edit! Coverage starts 11:50!
I have to admit, I have a HUGE dose of Olympic fever. On Sunday the women will be racing in front of the whole world, and, hopefully, we'll get Dutch style sprinting on the streets of London. Just typing that makes my pulse quicken! Join me below the jump for the way I hope the race will pan out, my predictions, and a little bit about the big teams - and tomorrow I'll profile some of the main riders, and tell you how to spot them on the road! But first, here's how it all ended in Beijing, four years ago. And as always, if you think I've got it wrong, tell me in the comments!
Edit! If the video doesn't work for you, click through to watch it on youtube!
When you read about the race in the media, you might think there's only one way it could finish - in a bunch sprint. After all, the women suffer from the fact they have to start and finish on the Mall, so they only get to ride two laps of Box Hill, because of length restrictions set by the UCI. However, it's worth remembering, that because women's cycling is so popular in the Netherlands, there are lots of races there that are pancake-flat, but still very exciting - Dutch-style sprinting is known for constant attacking, lots of groups forming an re-forming, and races of attrition, where position is vital - and tactical skills are as important as speed. These flat women's races are fast and furious, and use the wind and any change in the landscape as opportunities to attack and attack and attack, and then attack some more!
However, it's hard to call this race, because it's a really strange peloton. For one thing, we start with only 67 riders - and of those, there are only 5 teams of 4. And within that, the UCI have prioritised the number of countries over anything else, so there are lots of riders we've never seen racing in the big women's races - and out of the 67 riders, probably 15-20 of them are primarily here for the track or MTB, and are racing the road race because who wouldn't take the opportunity of riding as much as possible in the Olympic Games?
It's also worth remembering that we just don't see races that have this few riders per team. Effectively, what we're starting with is a peloton you'd see 30km into the later stage of a stage race - so it's very hard to call, usual team tactics don't apply.
Those are my caveats! My other caveat is what do I know? I'm just a fangirl!
If it comes to a Sprint
If it does come down to a bunch sprint, we have some ferociously good sprinter, and my guess for the podium, in no particular order, is:
Teute (Germany) has been THE queen sprinter for years, tough, fast, a tactical genius. Although she's not been racing much this year, and blogging on the Specialilized-lululemon website about how old she feels/how glad she'll be to retire, I think this is all sand-bagging! She's only ridden in the Olympics once, in 2000, and she didn't finish then - and she really wants a gold medal to round off her career.
Vos (Netherlands) is the best rider in the world, male or female, the true all-rounder, and she want a road race gold to go with her 2008 track gold. The thing about Vos is that she's more than capable of winning the race from any scenario - bunch, breakaway, duel, solo attack. Her problem is that everyone knows this, and no one will give her any help at all.
If you want a comparison with men's cycling, Italy's Bronzini is the Óscar Freire of the women's peloton - making herself invisible, and then attacking to devastating effect - as her two World Road Champions' jerseys show! You can't really judge her from her recent results, because she tends to only ride onto her top form once a year - but when she does, watch out!
If not those three, then who?
Shelley Olds, Lizzie Armitstead, Yumari Gonzalez Valdivieso & Joëlle Numainville
Shelley Olds (USA) is on spectacular form, and since she's come back from injuries earlier in the year, she's won the ChongMing Island World Cup and a stage of the biggest women's stage race in the world, the Giro Donne. Giorgia Bronzini says Olds is one to watch out for, and she should know!
Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) has spent most of the year working with Kirsten Wild to frustrate the other teams, and it's been a lot of fun to watch. The pressure's on her, but she definitely has the home advantage in terms of course knowledge and crowds.... but also the pressure...
Joëlle Numainville (Canada) races most of the year in the USA, but has had great results in World Cups, and Canadians always do well in the Worlds, so I'm sure it's the same in the Olympics!
And for a real left-fielder, Cuba's Yumari Gonzalez is better known as a very successful trackie, who's been twice World Champion in the Scratch race - but if she can stay with the bunch...
If it's not a bunch sprint
So why don't I think it's a guaranteed bunch sprint?
Well, the teams that want it to be a sprint are Germany, Italy, GB and the Netherlands - with Canada, the USA and Great Britain - and all of those have other options in their teams! Add to that the riders who will want it to be about breakaways - the lone wolf types, like Linda Villumsen (NZ) and Emma Johansson (Swe) both have had great Olympic success in the past - Villumsen coming 5th and Johansson ending with a silver medal in Beijing - and they definitely don't want a bunch sprint.
Linda Villumsan and Emma Johansson
Judith Arndt, Noemi Cantele, Trixi Worrack, Emma Pooley, Evelyn Stevens... and Marianne Vos!
Villumsen has been attacking like crazy in races all year, and if she jumps, people chase. This can end up with her being caught, at in the Giro Donne - or it can end up with her winning the entire race, as in the Giro Trentino. But imagine if she and Johansson go - and take the attack queens from the other big teams!
This is my ideal scenario - say Villumsen, Johansson, Trixi Worrack and/or Judith Arndt (Germany), Noemi Cantele (Ita) - and the likes of Clara Hughes (Can), Loes Gunnewijk & Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned), Evelyn Stevens & Emma Pooley (GBr) - and a couple of unexpected riders who were in the right place at the right time. If Vos missed THAT break (unlikely!) she can easily catch it again - and any of those riders would work together beautifully until they got enough distance to attack each other mercilessly! Of that kind of group, Vos would be the one made to work, and the ITT stars would attack at around 10, 5, 3 & 1 km out to avoid a sprint. It would be beautiful!
But what about reigning Olympic champion Nicole Cooke? Well, this year, she's been decidedly anonymous, and has never found form, but you can never, ever discount her. I'll only make predictions about Cooke half-way through the race!
When it comes to the national team, the Italians have found a formula that works, and no one can touch them. They've had the World Road Champion for the past 3 years, Tatiana Guderzo was bronze medallist in Beijing in 2008, and there's a reason for this: the Italian plan is to improvise!
While other teams start with a rider they're riding for, the Azzurre seem to have no ego - if one of them wins, they all win - so they decide their tactics on the road. Of course, they've plotted out various scenarios in advance, but they're always alert, and ready to react to any circumstance. Of their four riders, Bronzini has won road rainbows twice, and is there for the sprints - with Baccaille as the most formidable lead-out in the race - and Guderzo won Worlds in 2009.
Their secret weapon for all three races was Noemi Cantele, who spends the races attacking like mad and disrupting everyone else' well-crafted strategies. In 2009, she and Guderzo tag-teamed to attack Vos over and over until one of them - it didn't matter which - escaped. In 2010, every time it came to the hills, if it wasn't Pooley it was Cantele attacking - distracting attention from the fact the peloton hadn't dropped Bronzini yet. And last year, one of the highlights of the Worlds race was how when the sprint trains started to form, Cantele attacked, causing every other team to scramble to chase her down, and losing their well-rehearsed tricks. It was beautiful! Look out for Cantele again this year - and Bronzini, of course - she can get over far steeper hills than Box Hill!
Ina-Yoko Teutenberg may be the queen of road sprinters, but the Germans have 2 other riders who are equally strong. Judith Arndt will start the ITT as the favourite, and can use those TT skills to attack, chase, escape - and, as her 2004 World Road title and Olympic silver prove - win the biggest races. The third threat is Trixi Worrack - a rider for who every "most aggressive rider" jersey should have been made for. Worrack is having a resurgence after a couple of bad years - and she's not one to let opportunities go to waste! Like the Italians, the Germans are team players, and although Teute REALLY wants to take the gold to finish her illustrious cycling career, she's not the type to attack if a team-mate gets into a break. The fourth rider, Claudia Häusler, has been coming onto form lately, and she'll definitely be useful in the race.
If the Italians are the most flexible, improvisational team, the individual who'll start as the favourite and THE one to beat is Marianne Vos. Vos has proved over and over that she can win from any situations - bunch sprints, break groups, duels, solo attacks - there really is NOTHING she can't do. And she comes with one of the strongest teams - Annemiek van Vleuten, who won the Road World Cup Series last year, and who regularly causes the rest of the peloton agony, as they struggle to work out which is worse - let AvV escape, and win, or chase her & tow Vos to the sprint. Add to this Classics expert and attack-queen Loes Gunnewijk, and ITT star Ellen van Dijk, who's usually found in Specialized-lululemon's devastating sprint train, and they have a killer set-up. Their biggest problem is that everyone knows this, and if they have any sense, no one will help out the Dutch!
The home nation should have an advantage, but it's a funny team this year. On the one hand, Nicole Cooke has the most amazing palmares, but is she on form? British Cycling have obviously chosen to bet on her - and despite all the interviews about how the decision over whether Cooke or Armitstead lead the team will be decided nearer the time, it looks like they've chosen a team that is relying on it getting to a bunch sprint - with Cooke riding as a lone wolf, doing her own thing. This could be a great tactic - but it's an obvious one, and every one else will know it!
The risk in this strategy - Cooke for herself, Lizzie for the sprint and Lucy Martin to lead her out - is that if there IS a breakaway, and Cooke and Armitstead miss it, it will be up to Emma Pooley to do all the chasing, which risks her ITT on Wednesday. This is why I would have put Sharon Laws into the team, because Laws is well-known as a workhorse, who'll turn herself inside out for the team, and you can see from all the races she's been in this year that she's got one of the best tactical approaches to breakaways out there.
Of course, Pooley can also get into a break - in previous Worlds, it's been frustrating watching Pooley ride to a team plan rather than for herself, clearly holding herself back rather than attacking solo as she does so well. All this isn't helped by the fact their DS, Chris Newton, is new to the job. He was a genius track rider, but the biggest thing he ever raced on the road was the Tour of Britain with a domestic team. It might be tempting for riders used to winning at the highest levels to discount his team plan and make it up as they go along...
I have to take my hat off to Team USA - they looked at what they needed to get 4 riders to the Games, and have worked their socks off to achieve it. Amber Neben and Shelley Olds took full advantage of the disproportionately large number of UCI points available in the South American races, and scooped them up - and with Evie Stevens and Olds both having a spectacular season, they easily qualified the maximum riders.
Their plan should be Olds for the spint, and Stevens and Neben for the breaks - with Stevens and Neben both used to riding their hearts out for their team-mates in Specialized-lululemon. Kristin Armstrong will be focusing on the ITT, and doesn't have so much of a reputation as a team-player - but Olds, Neben and Stevens are all great at that, it won't really matter.
Edit! It turns out I could not have been more wrong about Armstrong - in the race she was fantastic, really putting the hurt on. I was told before that she would, and still thought she'd focus on ITT, but man, I was wrong!
Chloe Hosking is a scrappy, tenacious sprinter, who can make the most of other riders looking at each other, and take her own chances - and Amanda Spratt and Shara Gillow can get into the breaks - but I don't think they'll be on the podium of the road race. But what do I know? I'd love them to prove me wrong!
Emma Johansson has fantastic tactical skills, and can win races solo or sprinting from a bunch - and has to be a favourite to win this race, or at least medal - and Emilia Fahlin can definitely put the hurt on the peloton, as she's shown over and over for Specialized-lululemon
I don't know what it is about the Canadians, but they always do well in big races - you can pretty much guarantee at least one in the Worlds ITT top 10. This is Clara Hughes' last Games, so she might take the opportunity to attack on the road race as well - and Joëlle Numainville is a very canny sprinter. A fun fact, Canadian fans! Hughes has been to five Olympic Games, winter and summer, and she's only not come away with a medal in one, in 2000. She's got two bronze road cycling medals and a gold, two silvers and a bronze in speed skating. I'm an unashamed massive Clara fangirl, for her riding, her writing, her charity work and her open-ness about her depression, so when she attacks for the hell of it, imagine me cheering her on!
So those are my predictions, for what it's worth! I could talk about this race all day - and tomorrow I'll tell you how you can watch the race, and the tell-tale signs you can use to spot the riders -- but if you agree, disagree, or want to know what I think about other teams' chances, ask me in the comments!
You can find out more about some of these riders in the profiles I wrote on them, before the Olympic teams were announced - Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA. And I talked about the Canadians in a Top Trumps post in October (I left off the third rider in the Olympic team, and current Canadian National Champion, Denise Ramsden - shame on me!)
You can also follow the name links to the riders websites or twitters - and to see how the women road cyclists are preparing for the Games, I've made a Twitter list of all the Tweeting riders, which you're welcome to share.
Finally, a plug for which coverage you watch. Australian sprinter Rochelle Gilmore is one of the riders who didn't get a spot on the team - in her case, frustratingly, her season leading up to the decision was marred by a horrible accident in the Giro Donne, where she broke her back. She's finally back to her top, exciting form, but she wasn't picked to race. I'm gutted for her - but I'm really excited about what she's doing instead - commentating on the women's road and ITT race for Eurosport, alongside David Harmon and Sean Kelly. I can't wait - Rochelle's a passionate advocate for the sport, her blog and twitter are full of fantastic stories, and she knows this kind of racing, and the riders inside out. If you watch the race on Eurosport, you're guaranteed some great insight into the race!
Edit! And for the best in unofficial, uncensored twitter commentary on the men's and women's road races & ITTs, follow Bridie O'Donnell on twitter, at @Bridie_OD. She's always entertaining, informative and very, very funny!