The 2016 Tour de France is becoming a strange sort of prologue for Rio’s cycling competitions. While winner Chris Froome—who was forced to demonstrate his running abilities after a crash on stage 12 of this year’s race—will be doing the expected and riding in the road events in Brazil, fellow Brit Mark Cavendish, who had the most Tour de France stage wins this year (four), is heading to the track, and overall points leader Peter Sagan is set to represent Slovakia on a mountain bike.
The 159.4-mile men’s road race will start at Fort Copacabana early morning the day after the opening ceremony. The route heads west along the coast to Grumari beach, where the riders will make four laps of the 15.4-mile Grumari time trial circuit before heading back east. They will then loop around the 16-mile Vista Chinesa three times before finishing where they started. The 81-mile women’s route is similar, but with single laps of Grumari and Vista Chinesa. The Grumari loop features a 1.2-mile cobbled section and two climbs. The highest elevation on the course is 1,640 feet on the Vista Chinesa circuit that also features two climbs, the toughest being a 5.3-mile stretch at an average gradient of 5.7%. Expect the attrition from the repeated climbs to slowly wear down competition for the lead of the race. The individual time trial courses start and finish in Pontal and run around the Grumari loop once for the women and twice for the men.
Both the BMX and mountain bike courses are located in Deodoro Olympic Park. The women’s track is 350 meters long, while the men’s is slightly longer at 400 meters. BMX races start from an eight-meter high ramp—riders are held back by a gate that drops when the starting lights turn green—and feature jumps and sharp, 180-degree banked turns. Winning is all about having explosive power and bike control, and riders that lead from the start often prevail.
The exact number of laps that men and women will race around the 3.4-mile cross-country mountain bike course may not be decided until a couple of hours before the events—the number will be set to target a winning time between 1 hour 30 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes—but expect the men to ride about six laps and the women about five. The route, which includes rocky obstacles designed to look like giant flip-flops and a 40-degree descent down a staircase made of logs, will likely favor endurance over technical riding ability.
All of the road, BMX, and mountain bike events are individual rider competitions, with a single gold medal awarded to the winner, but the road events are complicated by team strategy and competition rules. Countries with multiple riders in the road race can task teammates to support their medal favorites, and time trial riders must also compete in the road race, even though most will be focusing on conserving energy for their own event a couple of days later.
Athletes to watch
Froome picked up his third Tour de France title on Sunday (2013 and ’15). Late last year he declared his intent to add an Olympic double. No male rider has ever won gold in the road race and time trial, let alone that and the Tour in a single year. Kenyan-born, Froome grew up in South Africa, but has raced as a Brit since 2008. In 2010 he was diagnosed with schistosomiasis, a tropical disease caused by parasitic worms that can cause fatigue, anemia and breathing problems. Froome may have suffered from schistosomaisis for years, and after undergoing treatment to remove the parasites, he quickly turned from a good, inconsistent rider to a dominant force.
She sealed her place in Rio with a bronze medal at the UCI world championships in Richmond, Va., in September. Since then she has won the Tour of California and the US national championship in May, the Giro Rosa in July, and now sits atop the UCI standings. A former swimmer, Guarnier switched to cycling at Middlebury College after struggling with shoulder injuries in the pool. In Brazil she will be aiming to become the second American woman to win the road race since Connie Carpenter-Phinney won the inaugural event at Los Angeles in 1984.
Armstrong already has two gold medals in the time trial (Beijing 2008 and London 2012), but has come of out retirement for a second time to defend her Olympic title again. During her second return to the sport, she won the US national championship in May 2015 ahead of Carmen Small. A year later that result was reversed, with Small first and Armstrong third. Small, however, was not selected to the Olympic roster and unsuccessfully sought arbitration for a place on the team, arguing that her dominant victory—more than a minute ahead of Armstrong—should have earned her a spot. Perhaps the only way to answer lingering selection questions will be for Armstrong to ride away with gold.
He won the inaugural Olympic BMX title at Beijing 2008 and doubled that in 2012. He is perhaps the most famous Latvian Olympian—his gold medals count for two of the three that Latvia has ever won at the Olympics. Introduced to the sport by his father at 6, Štrombergs won his first world championship, in the 9-year-old boys category, in 1996. Nicknamed “The Machine,” Štrombergs, 29, will be one of the oldest riders in Rio. Because BMX athletes rely on explosive power to sprint for the finish in races lasting less than 40 seconds, that may put him at a disadvantage to younger competitors. But Štrombergs does have the advantage of having done it all already, twice.
Sagan’s selection to take Slovakia’s single mountain bike spot seemed to come out of left field, but there is method to the madness. A five-time winner of the Tour de France points classification, Sagan is far better known for his success on paved roads rather than dirt tracks. But as a junior in 2008 he won both the mountain bike European and world championships. After previewing Rio’s road circuit in January, Sagan realized the hilly course would not favor him, and so began turning his attention back off-road. He won’t head to Brazil as a favorite, but instead as a dark horse who might throw some more surprises.
Schurter won bronze at Beijing 2008 and silver at London 2012. As the reigning mountain bike cross-country world cup winner, and already having won three out of four races in this year’s championship, he’ll be hoping to go one step higher on the podium in Brazil. Schurter grew up in Switzerland and turned pro in 2003. His biggest obstacle in Rio will be Frenchman Julien Absalon. The double Olympic champion (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008) has won five world cup titles to Schurter’s four, and is ranked just behind him in the UCI standings.
Men’s road race: Saturday, Aug. 6 at 8:30 a.m. E.T.
Women’s road race: Sunday, Aug. 7 at 11:15 a.m. E.T.
Men’s time trial: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 9 a.m. E.T.
Women’s time trial: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 7:30 a.m. E.T.
Men’s BMX: Friday, Aug. 19 at 2:10 p.m. E.T.
Women’s BMX: Friday, Aug. 19 at 2 p.m. E.T.
Men’s cross-country: Sunday, Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. E.T.
Women’s cross-country: Saturday, Aug. 20 at 11:30 a.m. E.T.