After the fantastic men's race on Saturday the question was if the women could match it for excitement and while it was a slow boil, once the race hit the final climb it lived up to all expectations. The riders rolled out of Rio for 137 km and unlike the men they only had to tackle the big climb once on their course. With winds not being favorable for crosswind-attacks , a high pace in the peloton and with small teams no one could or would get away in a long breakaway. Belgium's Lotte Kopecky went away but got no company and was left to dangle. Other than that the big news early on was big favorite Lizzie Armitstead getting an early flat and having to work quite hard for a long time to get back as the pace was high in the hilly terrain.
Just when it looked like the race was going to go together in a big group to the foot of the climb, a high octane group with names like Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand Prevot peeled off the front and soon built a gap of over a minute. Team USA had to take some responsibility to bring that under control because it was threatening to get very dangerous with two former World Champs up the road. As the climb started Abbott and Evie Stevens set a strong tempo and already on the steep early slopes the gap tumbled and the breakaway was soon absorbed. The tempo also caused trouble at the back and the group was soon whittled down drastically. Some who found themselves in trouble early were pre-race favorites Megan Guarnier and Lizzie Armitstead. Both slid out the back in the high pace but looked like they may be able to remain within a reachable distance.
Anna van der Breggen the had a go at attacking and drew out a strong-looking Elisa Longo Borghini. That was not to be the decisive move though, instead it was Annemiek van Vleuten and Mara Abbott who accelerated in such a way that no one else was able to follow. Emma Johansson was going backwards already and van der Breggen and Longo Borghini struggled in between. The front duo looked strong with the dutchwoman especially accelerating repeatedly dragging along the American who had already worked hard on the front for the entire first half of the climb. They crested the climb with almost a minute on a chasing trio where Johansson had rejoined on the easier top part of the climb. Not far behind them, about 20 seconds was a group with Armitstead and Jolanda Neff among others.
Everyone had their fingers crossed that nothing would go wrong after seeing Nibali and Henao crash yesterday but it was to no avail. Van Vleuten soon distanced the notoriously poor descender Abbott and was looking like a gold medal winner at the time but likely pushed too hard and in a right hand turn she locked up her brakes and took a violent tumble into the roadside gutter, leaving her lying motionless in an awkward position. Soon after the chasers raced by momentarily stunning her teammate Van der Breggen who was then encouraged to keep racing for Van Vleuten by Emma Johansson.
On the flat final kilometers Abbott was now alone in front with about half a minute advantage originally. Unfortunately for her the trio behind was cooperating well. In spite of holding a strong tempo in front the chaser gradually came closer and closer and while it for a time looked like they would be joined by the Armitstead group as well that never happened. In stead the three caught up a desperately sprinting Abbott in the final 500 meters and while Longo Borghin lead, followed by Johansson Anna van der Breggen was the first to open up the sprint. Johansson jumped to follow and came round the Italian but she could never close the initial gap the Dutchwoman had opened up. Van der Breggen took NL's second consecutive Olympic road race gold after Vos in London 2012. Johansson repeated her near-miss silver from Beijing in 2008 and a delighted Longho Borghini took the bronze.
The finish was heartbreak for Abbott who had the lead for so long and looked very powerful until the very end. Holding off alone was always going to be hard though as Majka showed in the men's event. Still it was a brutal way to finish just off the podium after such an amazing effort and the images of the American after the race told the whole story. To have the jubilant winners you also need the disappointed riders who just missed out, such is the realities of the big events.
The winner, 26 year old Anna van der Breggen, now definitively takes the step out of Marianne Vos's shadow with her biggest win to date. She is already a GiroRosa winner and perhaps the strongest allround cyclist in the peloton today. Next year she moves from one Dutch superteam to the other as she joins World Champ Lizzie Armitstead and other to form a truly fearsome Boels-Dolmans squad.
The condition of Annemiek van Vleuten is now confirmed by Dutch team doctors to be as positive as one could hope after such a violent crash. She is in intensive care for the next 24 hours with a severe concussion and three fractures (that appear to be minor) to her vertebrae. She is conscious and talking so all in all that seems as good as one could hope.