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Notes from the Rio Desk

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We definitely need a Rio desk. It could me made from some sort of exotic wood -- sustainably, of course. We're not monsters. Fresh fruit and happy music would be a must, along with a small photo of Saint Edson. [Er, "saint" may be a little strong but play along with me here.] On the wall would be a calendar entitled "The Sackings of Luiz Felipe Scolari," in English and Chinese. Heck, it could cover the next three years. A warm wind would blow through the office, carrying the scent of something delicious from a grill. Yeah, I could get used to this.

The Olympics are a beguiling thing. Yes, it's a chance for a nation or portion thereof to bankrupt itself in the service of an elaborate infomercial, and the extent to which I should be horrified by that depends on how much suffering is allowed to continue thanks to the redirection of funds away from more urgent human needs. Unfortunately, in Rio's case, the answer is probably a lot. But what's done is done, and we get the infomercial anyway. And what an experience it has been. Brazil in general has been off my exploratory map, despite having a good friend here who grew up in Rio (and who informed me the other day that she used to go to nearby Vista Chinesa as a teenager with her friends, to smoke pot, but hey...) but no more. I've always known that Brazil has a rich culture, by New World standards in particular. I didn't get how incredibly beautiful it can be -- when and where human development hasn't intervened too heavily. OK, on to cycling.

Van Avermaet and fake backdrop Photonews

Great Race or Greatest Race?

The poignancy of an Olympic cycling road race is one that I'm not sure I was fully appreciating before now. Sure, it lacks tradition, but the beauty of the Olympic model is the incredible urgency of it. It's the only high-profile race that happens on a quadrennial basis. No matter how much you love the Tour of Flanders, you get four bites at that apple, at least, for every one Olympic one. Course variation means that a particular type of rider might only get one or two realistic chances to win in his or her lifetime. Even the time trial, which adheres to more of a standard for courses, will only be a reachable goal to riders in their prime. That means two chances, realistically. For a generational talent, maybe three.

Isn't this what the classics are all about, times four? For the Tour of Flanders, there is no tomorrow, only next year, and too much can happen before then. Risks are still considered to have downside, but playing it safe is actually just as risky, if not more so. All of this is heightened by the international focus on the Olympics, the huge viewing audiences, the prestige of a gold (or other) medal, and the chance that you may never have another shot at one as long as you live. I don't know if you can compare it to any other race in order to say "it's the greatest race," since the national team format just scrambles everything. But it's as important as any one-day bike race on Earth.

Oh, and to the argument that the Olympics can fix their troubles by picking one city and just going there every four years, cycling disagrees. Maybe there's a city (Gap!) that's close enough to so many varied landscapes that you could return to the area but vary the course enough to make it as exciting and intriguing as it is now, where a new race is invented, raced once, and never seen again. But that seems unlikely.

Vos congratulates van der Breggen Matthias Hangst, Getty

Speaking of the Classics

The post-race debate centers on whether this really was a climber's course, or more for the Klassikoers. The nations who won -- Belgium and the Netherlands -- tells you a lot about that answer.

In hindsight this was a climber's course until about 20km to go, when it reverted to being 100 percent for the classics guys. A harrowing descent and long, breezy, flat run-in made this Brazil's answer to Gent-Wevelgem. Which means whoever you didn't want to win, if he's a classics guy, means you had to get rid of him before the top of Vista Chinesa. Same for the women too.

Strategically, this gave the teams of the climbers a clear command, to make the race hard enough so none of those people would be hanging around at the end, but as tempting as it is to get critical of some teams on this point, I think it was a harder job than it appeared. First, nobody had more than five riders on a squad, which is four less than a grand tour team. Italy and Great Britain did their best to assert a climbers' team's dominance over the race, but they could only reduce the field so much. Had Spain and France contributed more, maybe things would have been different. Colombia too, though they had Jarlinson Pantano up the road all day.

In the end few of the true climbers had enough to make it into the finale. Joaquim Rodriguez was there, and Fabio Aru eventually too. Several others like Chris Froome, Romain Bardet and Dan Martin, seemed not far off but unable to bridge the gap (and chose varying levels of finishing effort once the medals were gone). Only one team seemed to execute a plan with one rider from the true climber's category that could and probably should have worked: Italy, and Vincenzo Nibali.

Italy hit the race pretty hard. The BMC boys did a nice job of working the front for a countryman, Nibali, who isn't terribly familiar to them, debunking the old saw that Italian teams never work together. Aru was on hand as well, and with better legs the two Astani might have been unbeatable. In any event, they set it up and had a rider capable of finishing it off. Whatever happened on that descent was all that stood between this post and another one defending the race as a "climber's course."

I didn't watch as much on Sunday but the result was eerily similar: one climber survived the descent off the Vista Chinesa, but without enough of a gap to hold off the charging classics riders who were sure to crush the pint-sized scalatore in the sprint. On both days the descent was a major obstacle to anyone with less than perfect descending acumen. And for the climbers who managed it OK, the last 10km were death (figuratively speaking, and I can't say how glad I am that we are only figuratively speaking of death today). On both days, the resulting chase was a draw, but we all knew that the draw would go to the classics rider in the final 50 meters. At least Rafal Majka got a medal. Poor Mara Abbott... though she seems to have accepted the fleeting nature of her sport.

All of this begs the question: why didn't we see this coming? Why did people like Peter Sagan not show up, in the firm belief that it was a pure climber's course? I think maybe, just maybe, Greg Van Avermaet is a better climber than Sagan -- take his win in Le Lioran, for example -- but mostly the two have ridden neck and neck for the title of Cycling's Mooiste all season long. And if Van Avermaet could win, so too could Sagan. Right?

The reason is that on paper it really did look like a climber's course, but when you add human behavior to it, things change rapidly. Climbers tend to be conservative, racing with their heads and with a level of patience few others could understand, knowing that if the hill keeps going, eventually things will sort themselves out just fine.

Classics riders, on the other hand, are conditioned to take risks and worry about the consequences later. Yes, we see risk-taking attacks in the Alps during the Tour, but mostly when things have been reduced to a manageable group, and on terrain that's familiar to everyone. Classics riders, from Flanders to Liege to Lombardia, are simply more prone to taking matters into their own hands. Van Avermaet showed this by going up ahead with 75km to go, and again by pouncing on Jakob Fuglsang on the final run-in. Fuglsang also gets huge credit for knowing when to attack a chase group that was absolutely going to bollox the pursuit of Majka straight to hell. He and Van Avermaet knew that two chasers was the exact right amount -- two versus one, for three medals. Nobody plays any games until the last 30 seconds. Julian Alaphilippe gets credit for not stopping his own mad pursuit, though only after he maybe left himself too far back, and of course he didn't reach Van Avermaet in time to follow the winning move.

In the end, climbing was one ingredient. The other was an ability to say fuck it, there is no tomorrow, there isn't even a next year. The time to lay it all on the line is now.

Henao and Nibali in Rio Bryn Lennon

On the Downside

Sadly, this Olympiad may be best remembered for the horrible crashes it induced on the descent off the Vista Chinesa. One, which I haven't watched on the recommendations of many, was something we would have been living with for a long time if not for whatever small margin of good luck separated Annemiek van Vleuten from more serious consequences than the concussion and minor fractures she suffered. I can't analyze it, maybe a wet surface played a role, but more probably it was rider error. The result was devastating enough as it was, overshadowing Anna van der Breggen's triumph for a little while if not forever. The best you can say is that if van Vleuten, who was rampaging toward a win, lost it all in that moment, at least her country came out OK in the end.

Saturday's crash is even more mysterious, as I've yet to hear any confirmation why Nibali and Sergio Henao went down. One rumor was that Henao clipped Nibali's wheel, which is plausible enough -- and devastating in a different way than the women's race. Here you (would) have a less experienced Colombian taking out a veteran Italian from the top shelf of present-day cycling legend. Even under this assumption fault is hard to assign, but the guy behind should generally stay far enough behind to avoid overlapping. If Henao brought down Nibali, and took away his only chance at Olympic glory, for good, well, that's cycling, in all its tragic dimensions. And if Nibali, or both of them, just overcooked a turn, then maybe it's easier to stomach, just riders taking risks and paying the price.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on about whether the descent was simply inappropriate. Riders crashed, the argument goes, therefore it was too technical. More convincingly are arguments that the curbs and other potential dangers that went with crashing were the real issue -- not that the road was too crashable but that people could get seriously injured if they did go down. It wasn't the risk so much as the consequences.

That part rings true, but in my opinion I hope cycling grasps that distinction and doesn't overreact to the outcomes. Competitively speaking, the course could not have been more exciting, not to mention intriguing. Riders took incredible risks, beyond our comprehension, because the Olympics are special and because that's what the job requires them to do. The need to take risks is part-and-parcel of an exciting course, unlike say 2012. I'm all for removing the dangerous consequences of the next and all future Olympic courses, but please IOC and partners, don't flatten out the parcours in an overreaction to what we saw this weekend. Keep striving for that balance between the climbers and the Klassikoers, and keep as many of these amazing athletes as possible in the mix, fighting it out for one of sport's most cherished prizes.

Van Vleuten drops Abbot Bryn Lennon