Thrills, tragedy highlight women's Olympic road race

Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands passed her crumpled, injured teammate Annemiek van Vleuten lying motionless on the road, then notched a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the final leg of the women's road race. Tim De Waele/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO -- It's long past time to debate whether the world's top women cyclists can deliver a spectacle equal to the men. The greatness forged on empty roads revealed itself to a global audience Sunday in a way that should call the question forever.

They raced ferociously, balancing risk and reward on their slender tires as they navigated a course whose varied microclimates made it half torment, half travelogue. Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands, leading down the damp and treacherous descent of the Vista Chinesa, lost traction in a horrifying wreck that left her with three cracked vertebrae.

Two gallant messages would appear on van Vleuten's Twitter feed hours later, expressing gratitude and disappointment, saying she would be fine. But the four other women with a shot to win didn't know that when they passed her crumpled and frighteningly inert form seconds later.

The superlative American climber Mara Abbott was closest. She had backed off van Vleuten's wheel not long before, trusting the same instincts that have twice delivered her the championship of the Giro Rosa, the most demanding and prestigious women's stage race on the calendar.

Abbott saw the wreckage by the side of the road, spared a thought for van Vleuten and refocused ahead. She nearly soloed to the line, but it was a three-on-one drag race in the flats.

Her pursuers reeled her in with less than 200 meters to go. Another Dutch rider, Anna van der Breggen, won the sprint in what could hardly have been a more theatrical finish. Abbott came in fourth.

The 30-year-old Abbott spoke afterward with the calm of an athlete conscious she was in competitive shock. Rio's grueling, decisive climb played to her strength, and there is no guarantee that kind of topography will be a feature on the 2020 course or that she will even be in Tokyo to contest the race.

"It's going to take a lifetime to process," she said. "You'll never have that chance again in your entire life. But you never know what comes out of what."

Abbott's three U.S. teammates -- Kristin Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens and Megan Guarnier -- executed near-flawlessly and unselfishly to put her in position to win, which was notable for a couple of reasons.

As has been the norm in recent Olympic lead-ups, the U.S. team was only finalized after two other riders challenged the selection in arbitration. That, in turn, has led to the back-channel perception of the American women overall as a squabbling pack who would have trouble coalescing on competition day -- a condescending, sexist and unfounded stereotype.

The choice of two-time defending Olympic time-trial champion Armstrong was particularly controversial in part because of the demanding nature of the road race course. But Sunday, the 41-year-old Armstrong put in a huge effort on the front of the race in the flat and undulating sections before pulling out at the base of the final climb.

"Kristin did a fantastic job taking us in -- she was just awesome today," said Stevens, who along with Guarnier worked for Abbott until it was time for her to attack.

Armstrong came up behind Abbott in mid-interview and embraced her. Both women cried.

"I'm heartbroken for Mara," Armstrong said. "I really wanted to come back for a lot of reasons. I have my time trial goals on Wednesday, but I also really wanted to contribute to history in the road race and I really believed in this team.

"I can't imagine being where she is right now. She's gonna have a lot of sleepless nights."

This is a distinctive group who are a step removed from the pioneers, but still had to scrap for survival in their economically unstable sport. They all came to it relatively late and will exit it with other passions in their hip pockets. Guarnier intends to pursue graduate work in neuroscience. Armstrong is a converted triathlete, the mother of a young son and works as a community liaison for a large hospital. Stevens, who also will race the Olympic time trial, discovered cycling while working on Wall Street.

An interesting combination of blunt and ethereal, Abbott teaches yoga, works at a farmers market in her longtime base of Boulder, Colorado, and has long felt a tug toward environmental causes. She has characterized her very public and painful battle with an eating disorder as a climb that never really levels out.

Three years ago, Abbott told me her biggest challenge was owning her athletic talent. "If you hold back, you don't have to take responsibility for who you are," she said.

It's long past time to debate whether she and her contemporaries have done that. If anyone needs convincing, all they need to do is watch.