The line between failure and success: The differing fortunes of Great Britain’s Olympic men and women
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Monday, July 30, 2012

The line between failure and success: The differing fortunes of Great Britain’s Olympic men and women

by Ben Atkins at 7:53 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Opinion, Olympics
How flexibility saw Lizzie Armitstead take silver, while loyalty to Mark Cavendish saw the World champion miss out

lizzie armitsteadThe fortunes of the two Great Britain teams at this weekend’s Olympic road races couldn’t have been more different. Lizzie Armitstead took a battling silver medal in Sunday’s pouring rain, the day after the men’s team had gone home empty handed after a long fruitless chase of the race’s big breakaway. The two teams had employed entirely different tactics however, which either paid off, or didn’t.

Plan A for the men; Plans A, B and C for the women

The men’s team went into the race with one plan: to win gold through Mark Cavendish. This plan had worked in Copenhagen last year, when the nine men of Great Britain had delivered the Manxman to his World championship victory, and had also been successful for Team Sky at guiding Bradley Wiggins to his Tour de France victory a week before; the London 2012 team was just five-strong however and, despite the strength of those riders, this was not to be enough.

The women, on the other hand, had a far more flexible game plan. While Armitstead was undoubtedly Plan A, they had a Plan B in Emma Pooley, and even a Plan C in defending champion Nicole Cooke. The fact that Armitstead was billed as the team’s sprinter also worked in her favour, but many of the Yorkshirewoman’s victories - including the inaugural women’s Gent-Wevelgem back in April - have come in breakaways.

Pooley is a very predictable rider; everybody knows that Pooley is going to attack, but the only defence against it is to chase her. If you don’t chase Pooley she will ride away and win, and so you have to; the succession of digs put in by Pooley in the first half of yesterday’s race - along with many from eventual winner Marianne Vos’ Dutch teammates Ellen van Dijk and Loes Gunnewijk - wore down the other teams in the peloton, and laid the foundation for the final, successful move.

Should Armitstead’s group been caught by the chase, then Cooke was there to put in one of the late attacks that she has become a specialist in.

Armitstead was also lucky during the race. Had the United States’ Shelley Olds not punctured - taking the break down from four to three - it could have gone very differently. Once there were three in the group they were all racing for a medal; were Olds still there then the non-sprinter of the group - Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya - would doubtless have raced very differently; either attacking to escape alone, or not working at all, and they might well have been caught.

Because of its loyalty to Cavendish, the Great Britain men’s team did not have this flexibility. None of its riders tried to get into the big breakaway group that took shape on the nine laps of the Box Hill circuit, but instead stuck to its task of trying to close it down.

Box Hill made the difference, but not in the expected way

mark cavendishAs many expected, Box Hill was not tough enough for a breakaway group to build a big lead but, because of this, it was relatively easy for attacking riders to bridge across to the group, boosting its numbers to more than 30 by the closing stages. Very often, when groups are as big as that, they lack cohesion and are easily caught. This time however, it contained multiple riders from a number of countries, with two each from Belgium, Norway, the United States, the Netherlands, Colombia, three from Spain, and - before Fabian Cancellara crashed out - an incredible four from Switzerland.

The race effectively became one peloton chasing another, where more riders working in front than there were in the back.

Since Cavendish had gone into the race as the overwhelming favourite - and the team was billed in the British media as the ‘Dream Team’ - the other strong nations in the race were quite happy to put pressure on, and allow the hosts to do the lion’s share of the work. Cavendish complained after the race that the Australians had raced negatively, but they had put Stuart O’Grady up the road in the first 15km, and so had no obligation to do anything at all while he was still there.

Technical problems in the race undoubtedly played a part. While the riders would have had less information that usual anyway, since they were racing without radios, the fact that GPS problems for the race broadcasters meant that TV commentators were not sure of the break’s exact composition - or what its lead was at various times - surely meant that the riders weren’t either.

While the Australian team was free from responsibility to chase however, Germany - the only other big nation to miss the break - was not. Instead however, the Germans chose to allow Great Britain to do all of the work, hoping that the riders would burn themselves out and give André Greipel a far simpler task at the finish. This massively backfired for them however and, although the Gorilla did indeed win the bunch sprint, it was not for a gold medal, but for 27th place.

Had the Germans joined the chase earlier, the break might well have been caught, and the two big rivals might have got a chance to fight for the medals.

More than the lack of German cooperation however, the big problem for the Great Britain team was the inflexibility of its plan. As stated above, it has worked many times before for GB and Sky, and much of the nation’s success has been based on sticking to the plan, but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Part of this inflexibility was surely down to the other riders’ sense of duty and loyalty to Cavendish. The World champion had agreed to put his personal ambition aside for much of the Tour de France, and Olympic Gold was to be his payback for that. On any other race, the British would surely have put a man in the breakaway, but to do so here would have been to abandon Cavendish, and none of his team was prepared to do that.

The only acceptable thing would surely have been for Cavendish to join the break, which is easy to write in hindsight, but Great Britain was sticking to its plan to deliver the World’s fastest sprinter to the Mall to take victory in his usual style.

The Tour de France takes its toll on Great Britain’s tactics

Cavendish dismissed the notion that the Tour de France had affected the team’s performance; while this may be true, it certainly affected its tactics. Had Cavendish been fully supported in the Tour, and taken his usual five or six stages, the British riders would have surely felt more able to abandon their pre-arranged tactics and raced differently.

The British plan could have worked, had they been helped by the Germans sooner, and had they been fully aware of the details of the break and how big its lead was. The fact that everybody else in the race was happy to let Great Britain wear itself out on the front of the peloton however, meant that it was ultimately doomed to failure.

Great Britain’s women however, with their multiple options - any one of which could have worked - were successful, and Armitstead got the host nation’s medal tally under way.


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