Dutchwoman Marianne Vos put years of frustration behind her when she claimed the gold medal in the cycling road race, dashing Britain’s hopes of a first home victory of the Games in driving rain on Sunday.
Vos, runner-up at the last five road race world championships following her 2006 win, outsprinted breakaway companion Lizzie Armitstead, who at least earned the hosts their first medal of the London Games with a silver as rain poured down on The Mall.
“The Olympics is different than the world championships. I knew it was a different race,” Vos told a press conference. “You don’t have to think about the years before.”
Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya, also in the breakaway, took third place at the end of a 140.3km ride starting and ending in central London.
“I’m so glad I committed to that break,” Armitstead told reporters. “We saw the men’s race. Once you’ve got a committed group it’s hard to get them back, so I went with it.”
“I’m so happy we got the ball rolling for Team GB,” she added, shivering with cold.
Defending champion Nicole Cooke of Britain did not have enough energy this time as she sometimes struggled to keep up with the fierce pace set by Vos, despite the poor conditions.
The race started in the sunshine, but threatening clouds rapidly gathered over the riders’ heads and the rain poured down again and again.
Spectators at the finish line regularly ran for shelter, came back to enjoy the sun in between the showers, and were then forced to open their umbrellas again.
“When the downpour came, I thought: ‘This is great for the British riders,’” Armitstead said.
Four riders were left to contest the three medals when Vos, Armitstead, Zabelinskaya and Shelley Olds of the US powered away from the peloton after the second and last climb of Box Hill.
“We knew Lizzie was in form, we knew I was in form and Emma [Pooley] was going well, so we didn’t have the all-out sprinter, we wanted to get someone in the break and that’s what we did,” Cooke said, her face covered with mud.
Italy, Sweden and Germany, looking to bring their leaders back into the picture, took turns at the front of the peloton, but the leading four collaborated well to build a decent gap.
Olds’ hopes vanished when she suffered a puncture with 25km to go.
Vos, the 2008 points race Olympic champion on the track, timed her final effort to perfection as she surged past Zabelinskaya in the final straight and Armitstead was slightly too slow to latch on to her wheel.
All day long, Vos and Briton Pooley tried to shake the peloton with brutal accelerations and it eventually paid off for the Dutch rider.
Armitstead, who was expected to be Britain’s main asset in a mass sprint, managed to slip into the decisive break.
“She rode the perfect race, it was a magnificent performance — she just didn’t have the legs at the end,” Team GB director of performance David Brailsford said. “She took the risk and it paid off — credit to her.”
Credit to Vos, too, as she was the most aggressive rider.
“She’s a worthy Olympic champion,” Brailsford said.