The course for the two road races is very different from that of a conventional Olympics or world championships. Instead of multiple laps of a circuit at the end, the laps are done in the middle of the race, followed by some 50km of racing before the finish. At 250km, the men’s race resembles a spring classic, most notably Belgium’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Huge crowds are expected on the 15.5km Olympic road circuit near Dorking after an initial section through the Surrey hills. The main climb to the top of Box Hill, overlooking the green, rolling terrain of The Weald, is similar to those in the Belgian classics: it averages 5-percent grade on a narrow road featuring two sharp switchbacks (giving the road its name, Zig Zag), rising just over 400 feet in 2.5km (similar to Mont Cassel). Nine times up Box Hill (twice for the women), combined with the bumpy nature of the circuit’s country lanes, very narrow in places, is sure to split the race apart — and only the best-prepared sprinters will stand a chance of staying at the front.
The finish is on The Mall, the regal boulevard leading from Buckingham Palace, where Fabian Cancellara famously won the prologue time trial of the 2007 Tour de France. And it should give rise to a sprint similar to the one Mark Cavendish and his rivals will likely experience on the Champs-Élysées the previous weekend at the end of this year’s Tour.
Besides Cavendish, the men most likely to contest gold in the men’s race are Cancellara, Tyler Farrar of the U.S., Oscar Freire of Spain, Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, Matt Goss of Australia, André Greipel of Germany and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Britain has three potential winners in the women’s 140km race — defending champion Nicole Cooke, sprinter Lizzie Armitstead and 2010 world time trial champion Emma Pooley — but there’s a risk of disharmony within the team following the 2011 worlds road race. Cooke placed fourth in Copenhagen, while Armitstead crashed just before the sprint and still came in seventh in the bunch gallop.
A few weeks later, Armitstead told Cycling Weekly, “Cooke rode for herself in my opinion. I’ve never seen her work for a teammate… it’s been an unspoken situation for too long.” Cooke has denied her teammate’s claim, but the spat might well resurface at the Olympics where last year’s worlds medalists, Giorgia Bronzini of Italy, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and Ina Teutenberg of Germany, will be ready to capitalize on any mistakes by the home team.