On a brilliant course, Belgium's Greg Van Avermaet benefited from a shocking crash in the final phase of the race to come back and shock the favorites, the prognosticators and most of all Rafal Majka of Poland en route to becoming Olympic champion in Rio de Janeiro. Van Avermaet survived over climbs they said might be beyond his capacity, survived a selection that saw him among the chasers seemingly left behind, and survived a three-way sprint en route to his win over Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang.
The pair had chased down Majka on the flat roads leading back to Rio, catching him just inside 3km to go after it looked like Majka had the gold medal in his pocket. Majka had gone over the top of the Vista Chinesa climb with Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and Colombia's Sergio Henao, a very threatening lead group and one that was hoping to use Nibali's descending prowess to stay clear. But Nibali went down on the descent, taking Henao with him and leaving Majka alone.
That left it all up to the Pole to finish things off, and it seemed as though he could, against a chase group that looked too disorganized to close the gap in the final, flat 10km. But a Fuglsang attack brought Van Avermaet out, and the duo organized themselves well enough to end Majka's dreams. From there it was only a matter of which of the two chasers would take the gold, with an exhausted Majka unllikely to challenge. Van Avermaet maneuvered Fuglsang into the front position inside the last km, and blasted off with 200 meters remaining to take the gold by several bike lengths over the Dane. Majka coasted in for bronze.
The stunningly beautiful Rio parcours was the star of the first four hours, as the peloton spun through jungle and along surfing beaches, over lovely hills and rough cobblestone stretches. But it was a selective event as well, and things thinned out as the race joined the three Vista Chinesa circuits. Michal Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas, Avermaet, Damiano Caruso, Henao, and Andrey Zeits paced things in the latter end of the race, though Kwiatkowski, who had been in the early break, let go of the pack on lap two (of three) of the final Vista Chinesa circuit, with 40km to go. But the descent began claiming victims, with Nelson Oliveira going down gently and Richie Porte not faring so well, with a possible collarbone break occurring in a hard crash.
But as they were sorting out that trouble, Fabio Aru and his countryman Nibali had descended across to the leaders along with Adam Yates of Britain and Fuglsang, making for a clear strategy as Caruso took up the pace-making in advance of the final loop. Better still, Kwiatkowski had caught up again, and his captain Rafal Majka made the juncture as well, putting Poland in front with Italy. On the flats the lead group had 50 seconds on Spain, France and the others who missed the break, notwithstanding some pace work by Swiss star Fabian Cancellara. Caruso continued to pound away as the leaders hit the final 25km, readying for the last climb, with 38 seconds in hand, while Spain's Alejandro Valverde -- a heavy medal favorite -- helped out behind.
As the last circuit began, Tanel Kangert of Estonia (and a trade teammate of Aru and Nibali) escaped the chase group. Aru and Zeits upped the pace on the leaders and shed Yates. In Group 2 Valverde began to fade, crossing off the most obvious threat to the leaders' group. Joaquim Rodriguez joined Kangert chasing the leaders, and Chris Froome managed to slip free of group two. Nibali was then left alone at the front with Thomas, Van Avermaet, Zeits, Henao and Fuglsang, punching away at them but to little effect. Aru tried to claw back, while Rodriguez eventually made contact with Louis Meintjes. That left nine riders for the final short climb, descent and flats, with only Italy holding more than one card.
The final climb saw Nibali accelerate and draw out Henao and Majka, and the trio began the descent with a meaningful gap versus the chase group (which now included Alaphilippe). Nibali paced the downhill, as expected, but Majka and Henao remained in contact with the Italian, until disaster struck, when Nibali and Henao hit the tarmac and Majka headed off alone. Henao was hurt and Nibali stopped his ride as well. In the following group Thomas went down as well, leaving a handful of riders left to chase Majka over the final 10km.
With 20 seconds in hand, Majka thundered back toward Rio, as Van Avermaet tried an attack on the group, now including Zeits, Aru, Alaphilippe, Rodriguez, Fuglsang and Meintjes. With 7km to go it was a 23 second lead, and going up, as the chase group cannibalized itself repeatedly. Fuglsang eventually got free with Van Avermaet, cutting Majka's lead down rapidly, and the gold medal was up for grabs again!
Ultimately Van Avermaet had all the tools in the champion's toolbox -- risk-taking, aggression, courage, handling skills, endurance, luck and a fine sprint -- to make for a winner with whom nobody would disagree. He was on the fringes of the favorites list, but it's been a great season for the Lokeren native, and everyone knew that if they didn't somehow get rid of him before the final summit, trouble would be brewing. Classics riders know how and when to plot strategy in an uncontrollable one-day race, which is exactly what Rio delivered. Among the climbers only Valverde would be a favorite in a sprint over Van Avermaet, and he was long gone.
Van Avermaet's gold breaks a couple long streaks for Belgium. It's their first road race gold since Andre Noyelle in 1952, and their first gold medal of any kind since 2008, as well as the first gold in a men's event since 1996. That it comes in the nation's cherished road cycling event should make for some sweet celebrations in the land of great chocolate and beer.