Rio de Janeiro — After a series of spills in the men's
Olympic road race left cyclists with broken bones and bloody road rash, it
seemed as if the women's race Sunday was going to escape serious injury.
That all changed in a fraction of a second.
Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten, barreling down the final
descent of Vista Chinesa in the lead, hit the deck in a spectacular fall. Her
bike catapulted into the air, and van Vleuten lay motionless on the side of the
road while the rest of the field cautiously swept past her.
She was transported to a Rio de Janeiro hospital and
diagnosed with a concussion and three small fractures of her spine, and was to
remain in intensive care for at least 24 hours.
"It was horrendous crash," said road race silver
medalist Emma Johansson of Sweden. "The peloton is so small and we all
know each other very well. I just hope she's OK."
So dangerous was the course over the first two days of the
cycling program at the Rio Games that the International Cycling Union was
forced to defend it, pointing to a test event and numerous training
opportunities that gave riders a chance to familiarize themselves with it.
It didn't appear to do much good.
Also read: Empty feeling as Brazil, USA women off to winning start
The carnage began on Saturday when Giro d' Italia winner
Vincenzo Nibali and Colombia climber Sergio Henao were leading on the same
slippery, technical descent. Nibali likely would have won gold had he been able
to stay upright, but wound up heading to the hospital instead.
His coach, Davide Cassani, said that the Italian broke his
collarbone in the fall.
Henao fractured the upper part of his pelvis in his wreck,
while Australia's Richie Porte broke his scapula in another crash, an accident
that will keep him out of Wednesday's time trial.
Geraint Thomas of Britain and Nelson Oliviera of Portugal
also hit the pavement.
"It was anarchy out there," American rider Brent
Nibali actually warned Italy teammate Elisa Longo Borghini
about the chaotic final descent ahead of the women's race, so she took it a bit
slower on Sunday and wound up earning a bronze medal.
Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands took gold.
"It's a difficult descent because you can go really
fast but you also have to corner," she said. "After the men's race I
think we were all warned that we needed to take care of the descent and we did.
Of course, if you're riding in front, maybe you take too much risk. I don't
The course was widely regarded as the toughest in Olympic
history, even before the first riders set off on it. Long stretches of flats
gave way to pounding cobblestones that caused numerous mechanical issues, and a
hard series of climbs shook up the fields even before Vista Chinesa.
Then they came to the climb that defined both races.
Olympic courses tend to be flat affairs with a few small
climbs thrown in to spice things up — nothing compared to the 10-kilometer
climb in Rio. That means riders also rarely see such a hard, sharp descent, one
that becomes all the more treacherous so close to a gold medal.
"Everybody wants to win. Yeah, everybody's taking
risks," men's gold medalist Greg Van Avermaet said. "Some guys
probably went over the limit and that's why it happened. I think the road was
pretty good. I was happy to stay safe. I think I took a little bit of risk, but
not too much, and I think this was the best decision because if you're on the
ground, the race is over."For
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