Cycling Road Race: No Gold for the Host Nation

Britain's Mark Cavendish, the favorite going into the event, falls short on the first day of Olympic competition

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Matthew Childs / Action Images / ZUMAPRESS

A dejected looking Mark Cavendish at the end of the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games men's cycling road race, on July 28, 2012.

When did the Olympics begin for you? For some, it was when the fabled torch landed on British soil just over two months ago. For many, it was Danny Boyle’s beautiful, brilliant and, at times, baffling opening ceremony, which celebrated what the 2012 host nation has given to the world. (Shakespeare! Health care! Harry Potter!)

But for Mark Cavendish, the 30th modern Olympics began the moment the 27-year old Isle of Man native set off on Saturday from The Mall, a location so central that both the Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron could peer out of their respective windows and take in the atmosphere (though bearing in mind the Queen’s exploits last night, she was probably enjoying a well earned lie-in).

(PHOTOS: Highlights From the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony)

At 10.00am (5.00am ET), Cavendish and four of his Team Sky brothers in arms—fresh from their stunning success in making Bradley Wiggins the first Briton to win the historic Tour de France after 99 years—set about negotiating the 250km course, the longest distance across any of the 26 Olympic events. If they could replicate for Cav in London what they achieved for Wiggo in Paris, Great Britain‘s first Gold medal of the Games would be in the bag. And in the process, a nation would be galvanized.

Cavendish had been considered the favorite going into the event, considering that sprinting is his speciality, which is what the race was supposedly going to come down to. He’s racked up a ton of stage events at the Tour de France over the years, including the final stage last Sunday, but had specifically tailored this year’s Tour as a very lengthy warm-up for his real aim of securing Gold. But, as with Wiggins in the Tour, Cavendish would surely need more than a little help from his Team Sky friends—alphabetically they stacked up as Chris Froome, David Miller, Ian Stannard and Wiggins—if he were to get these Games off to a flyer both for himself and a sports mad host nation desperate to celebrate on the opening day of competition.

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Team’s Sky specific tactics of ensuring that Wiggins would be the priority across France worked beautifully, with the Londoner winning by three minutes and 21 seconds. In fact, it worked so beautifully that Cav, who enjoys the spotlight as much as anyone in sports, has hinted that he may need to look elsewhere to make sure that his needs are met. Nevertheless, Wiggins had promised to return the favor by “racing my heart out,” he said, in the road race.

When falling behind on Saturday, the British riders stuck to their guns and didn’t panic, despite being six minutes adrift of the first breakaway bunch when they hit the gruelling Box Hill for the first time. This steep area outside of the capital had been pinpointed as being the main reason why Cav’s quest could fall apart. But by the timecheck at the 168km mark, they were just one minute, 22 seconds back. Twelve plucky cyclists had decided to make a shot at disturbing the status quo by breaking away; slowly but surely, other riders kept attacking the escapees while the British riders at the head of the peleton didn’t stray from their script, confident that the leaders would be reeled in and the race would come down to a sprint finish back at The Mall.

(LIST: Mark Cavendish in TIME’s 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

But there were just too many moments of considerable concern. With 25km to go, and the leaders still maintaining a healthy lead of over a minute, GB’s Froome ran out of steam, leaving Cavendish with a little less help. But as the cycling Gods take away they can also give: Switzerland’s main hope Fabian Cancellara, among others, badly misjudged a corner with approximately 15 km left and crashed, putting paid to his medal hopes. At almost the same moment in the chasing pack, Wiggins decided to put in another significant shift to help Cav but, ironically, potentially damage his own hopes in next Wednesday’s time trial by exerting himself.

Alas, the effort would count for nought. It became apparent that while there would still be a sprint finish, it would only be contested between two men: Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov and Colombia’s Roberto Uran. And in retrospect, the moment an hour or so earlier when Cancellara took off on the final circuit of Box Hill is when the Brits should have made their major move.

Back to the medal contenders and as they approached the line, Uran was more concerned with the chasing pack, which was a costly decision because they certainly weren’t chasing. Vinokourov, a cyclist who has been close to controversy and retirement in recent years, took advantage of his opponent napping and took glory by roughly two bike-lengths with Norway’s Alexander Kristoff nabbing bronze. “Today’s race was unbelievable and dangerous,” said Vinokourov. “I followed the group and then attacked on the sprint.” As for Cavendish, he languished in 29th place.

(MORE: After Tour de France, Will Bradley Wiggins Win Olympic Gold?)

The suspicion immediately sprung up that the peleton were essentially riding against the Brits and Cavendish, as they didn’t seem particularly interested in making up much ground on the leaders. Was it a case of the hosts against the world? Or over confidence on the part of Cav (who certainly doesn’t lack any) and his team-mates? When TIME puts these very points to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who was at The Mall to cheer on Team GB, he laughs off the suggestion, noting, “that’s way beyond my pay grade,” before saying that “I think he’s (Cavendish) a great athlete and they’re a great team. Nothing can take away from the fact that we won the Tour de France for the first time in 99 years and they’ll be other opportunites during the Games for British cycling.” Perhaps so but the post-mortem is about to begin. And as far as Kazakhstan and Vinokourov are concerned, so have the Olympics.

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