Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium out-sprinted Jakob Fuglsang and Rafal Majka on the long run to the finish at Copacabana Beach on Saturday to win the men’s Olympic road race.
Van Avermaet threw his arms in the air and let out a roar when he crossed the line, blowing a kiss to the sky after the biggest victory of his career. Fuglsang followed him to take silver and Majka appeared content with bronze.
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His victory came after Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, one of the pre-race favourites, and Colombian counterpart Sergio Henao crashed while trying to navigate a corner on the final harrowing descent of the 6-hour race.
The riders were going so fast that TV cameras on motorbikes couldn’t keep up, so it was unclear what caused them to crash. Both were still on the pavement when the cameras reached them - just in time to see Majka slicing through the shadows and riding away.
Known more for his climbing chops, Majka was eventually reeled in as the race neared the finish, where a sun-splashed crowd that had spent the day on the beach gathered to welcome them.
It was unclear whether Nibali was seriously injured, though he will no doubt reflect painfully on his squandered chance. The hard nature of the course offered a rare opportunity for the Giro d’Italia winner and former Tour de France champion to compete for gold.
The long course was tightly guarded by police, no small challenge in a host country that has been dealing with spikes in crime. The only incident occurred a few hundred metres from the finish line, where a bomb squad detonated an unattended bag hours before the riders arrived.
The race rolled off to the soundtrack of crashing waves and under clear, sunny skies buzzing with helicopters - some carrying TV cameras, others from the military to provide security.
Riders headed along the brilliant beaches of high-end neighbourhoods Ipanema and Leblon, then began attacking each other on their way south. The day’s break quickly formed when six riders slipped away and built a gap of nearly 8 minutes, among them former world champ Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland.
The brutality of the course became evident over the cobblestone sectors.
Ahmet Orken of Turkey was rattled off his bike. Tour de France champion Chris Froome needed a bike change after a mechanical issue. Richie Porte of Australia had his chain bounce off.
The break stayed clear through four laps of the Grumari Circuit, a 25-kilometer loop that began stringing out the field. The riders then headed back toward Rio and began three climbs of Vista Chinesa, a tough uphill slog on forest-lined roads that splintered what was left of the peloton.
So hard was the course that reigning world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia chose to try his luck in the mountain bike race. No doubt many rivals thought it was the right decision.
One by one, a pack driven by Britain, Spain and Italy pulled back the break, though Kwiatkowski made them work for it. His jersey flapping open in the midday heat, the Polish star was finally caught by six riders after nearly 200 kilometers spent at the front.
Time trial favorites Porte and Nelson Oliveira of Portugal crashed during one of the fast descents, and Porte spent several minutes sitting beside the road before getting to his feet.
There was more carnage on the final march over Vista Chinesa.
The images of Nibali and Henao lying on the road caused a gasp among fans watching on a big screen at the finish line. Geraint Thomas of Britain joined them on the ground moments later in a race that left plenty of riders with scrapes, bruises and road rash.
One that left a Belgian hearing his national anthem, too.