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Rio Runs Through Them: Stars of Cycling Converge on Olympic Races

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Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The dog days of summer are fully upon us here at the Cafe's Seattle Desk. In part because I have a dog and am spending an additional 30 minutes a day in fur management mode, which will continue until temperatures stop rising above 65 degrees, or until everything I own is the color of an Icelandic sheepdog. But in part because it's finally hot out, there's a million things going on, and my brain is beginning to fry.  I mean, we have an olympic road race coming up in a few days and I'm not even sure why I should be excited.

Rio roads

Hey! That's a cheap shot -- trying to get me excited by posting photos of cobbled hill climbs around Rio, even though they're not actually part of the parcours.

Rio coast

Huh. That's the route along the water. See the long, straightish red line in the following map? That's this road.

Rio map

Sorry that the type is so small that you can't really read the scale, but it says 1 cm = 25 floating corpses in the harbor. [OK, I'm done with cheap humor. I hope the games are a success and think that Rio is one of the more fascinating places in the world. And while they have problems, at least they don't have a nihilistic game show host running for president.]

OK, before we get ahead of ourselves, here is the schedule, using I believe local time:

  • Saturday, 9:30am: Men's Road Race
  • Sunday, 8:15am: Women's Road Race
  • Wednesday, 4:30pm: Women's Time Trial
  • Wednesday, 6pm: Men's Time Trial

Anyway, there *are* cobblestones around the course, even if they aren't kinderkopje (baby head) material. But there are some serious cobbles, apparently. So says the UCI:

The races combine sectors of cobbles that would not be out of place in Paris-Roubaix, climbs whose steepness and length are reminiscent of an Ardennes Classic, coastal roads as exposed to gusting cross-winds as many a Flemish or Dutch Classic and - just for good measure -  Tour de France Alpine-style technical descents.

Ho HOHH! Ok then! What's more, see which way those palm trees are blowing? Yep. Crosswinds. Now we know why Nairo was left off the Colombia start list. This is a nasty course, all around. So we should have ourselves quite a contest in the Olympic Road Races. On to the more meaningful graphical depictions. Yep, it's overwrought profile time!

Rio profile

There should be a word for that shape of the climbs, like a "chevron" or something French/international-sounding. Personally I can't tell if it looks more like a bottle opener or a shark emerging from the surf with a seal/surfer in its mouth. Either way, I'm pretty sure it favors Vincenzo Nibali.

The bottom line is what you've been hearing forever: that the Olympic Road Race will be a hard one favoring climbers. But.... which ones? I think that might be a tricky call.

Back to the final climb, which is the obvious feature worth obsessing over. The Estrada Vista Chinesa will be climbed in a clockwise direction, with the peloton first ascending the Estrada das Canoas, heading from the southwest corner of this map first north, then turning east toward Rio on the Vista Chinesa.

Canoas Vista Chinesa

Descriptions are a little hard to come by, but I think the best one may come from the UCI:

If Canoas-Vista Chinesa should probably be considered as a single climb, the good news for the wearier members of the Olympic peloton at this point in the game is the lengthy middle downhill section after the Canoas climb and prior to the ascent to Vista Chinesa. The climb is two lanes wide and the average gradient a comparatively benign 6.2 percent. The bad news is that the Canoas-Vista Chinesa climb is 8.9 kilometres long, has a notably difficult start, a vertical gain of 635 metres and a maximum gradient of 20 percent. Furthemore, with just a few kilometres between the end of the fast, technical, descent that completes the 25.7km circuit and the start of the next one, there is barely any time to recover. All this at a point in the race when riders are already exhausted.

So a punchy climb, more than long enough to shed the guys who don't climb all that well, but also full of devilment on the way up and -- perhaps even more so -- on the way down. I don't know if we need any more cold, hard statistics on this road to get the point. We do know that the first 3.5km heading down are known at climbbybike.com as the Vista Chinesa - Bifurcacao climb (in the other direction), which averages 13% over that terrain. That's a nosedive, and the switchbacks mean it's a technical one. But if you're worried about whether the road is lovely enough, fear not:

Vista Chinesa

Men's Road Race Favorites

I'd say favorites come from a list of riders who check the following boxes: climbing ability, technical ability, and a strong team. That's not entirely different from the biggest races of the year, but if I had a crossfader with the poles set at "Giro" and "Tour" I would be at the 65% Giro position. Skinny roads and a harrowing descent definitely put this in the category of extreme trickeration. Hence the following handful of hopefully-not-too-obvious favorites.

* Tim Wellens/Greg Van Avermaet -- Belgium are one of the only teams that should have two pretty threatening guys up front, angling for the win. Van Avermaet can definitely take a sprint off anyone on the startlist -- not a guarantee, but a clear possibility. His experience at the Monumental Classics means that his legs can ordinarily stand the 250km distance. And if he gets dropped on the climb, there's enough time for him to maybe close the gap heading down. Wellens, meanwhile, is coming off victory in Poland, as well as an impressive Giro (one stage win) and seems like the right rider at the right time for this thing.

* J-Rod and Valverde -- Together at last. Well, it happens once or twice a year, but this is the last go-round for Purito. So who gets to go for the win? Could be a tough question for the Spanish team, but luckily they are such different riders that the answer will be decided more by what the finale of the race requires. If it requires a daring assault over the top, Purito is your man. But if nobody can get separation, then Valverde, the ace descender and sprinter, will be the obvious man for the job. All the better if Rodriguez is up the road and Italy, Britain and Belgium have to kill themselves chasing.

* Vincenzo Nibali -- I don't have great feelings about a guy who has two grand tours in his legs, and the presence of two Astani (inlcuding Aru) and two BMC guys doesn't make me feel any less concerned that the Astana-ditching Nibali may actually be on his own. But if one guy can do it... well, in theory the Shark would be such a person.

* Chris Froome -- Will someone finally dare to attack the Maillot Jaune? He won't be wearing it, so maybe that will lower the intimidation factor. Froome is still a question mark on the technical descending stuff, notwithstanding his work at the non-technical Tour descents, but Cummings, Stannard, Thomas and Yates make for some serious protection in the end. And he's not as bad a sprinter as I'd like to think, when he's up for it. Remember him pushing Sagan to his limit?

* Julian Alaphilippe/Romain Bardet -- Bardet is the rising star. Alaphilippe is... the other rising star. Ala is the classics guy, so maybe Bardet is deployed to scare the favorites out of their wits while Ala waits patiently to strike. Never seen it before, but if it happens, I'll be cheering.

* Everyone from Colombia -- Specifically that would be Chaves, Mig-Angel Lopez, Pantano, Uran and Henao. It's not hard to picture all five of them hanging around into the finale. What's harder is seeing one of them win a sprint.

* Someone without much support -- A few pieces of spaghetti to throw at the wall. Jakob Fuglsang will be heard from, as always. Maybe Vasil Kiryienka? Boasson Hagen? Petr Vakoc should scare the crap out of practically everyone. Fabian Cancellara and Zdenek Stybar would love to tangle one more time (but it's probably too high a climb). Dan Martin and Wout Poels both don't want you to notice them until it's too late.

Women's Road Race Favorites

I will confess ignorance and let you know that the conventional faves are best described by my friend and neighbor Anne-Marie Rook at CyclingTips, and their top five ranking includes Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead, Evie Stevens, Megan Guarnier and Kasia Niewiadoma. Guarnier is coming off the Giro Rosa victory and is ranked #1 for the season, but Armitstead was dominating prior to then. Vos is still on the road to recovery, but she's scored five wins in just over a month, which should keep her opponents up at night.

My picks

I think Armitstead uses the doping chatter as motivation, and uses her slight break as a proper rest. She's nailed all her priorities in the last year. The Olympic gold would be one more. And on the men's side I'll say... Vakoc over Wellens. Unconventional, sure, but this won't be a conventional race.