Sunday July 29th, 2012

London -- And now for something completely different.

A day after cycling's so-called Dream Team failed to deliver heavily favored Mark Cavendish to the final kilometers for a sprint finish, the Brits tried different tactics, and got a different result in the women's road race. After three and half hours of cautious cornering and dodging fallen riders on the rain-slicked roads outside London, 23-year-old Lizzie Armitstead came rocketing down the Mall in a sprint with Holland's Marianne Vos, who edged her at the line. It wasn't gold, but it wasn't bupkes, which is what the British men had left with the day before.

Did it feel like she'd lost the gold, or won the silver?

There was no shame in losing to Vos, whom she described, accurately, as "the best rider in the world," and "faster than most of the girls on the circuit."

"I'm pretty chuffed with silver," concluded Armitstead happily, as well she should have been; her medal was the host nation's first at these Games.

It was a very different vibe around Buckingham Palace this morning. The crowds assembling for the start of the women's road race were considerably more sparse. The Brits who did show up were more reserved, as if suffering a psychological hangover from the day before, when Team GB's men had ridden their guts out, but finished out of the medals.

They were also soaked, the Mall having been raked with thunderstorms a half hour before the noon start. Sunday's forecast -- showers throughout the day -- further dampened the spirits of the spectators, and some of the riders, with one notable exception.

"I'd been praying for rain," said Armitstead, who loathes extreme heat, but loves racing in foul conditions, fitting for someone born in Leeds, a longish training ride from the Scottish border. A converted track rider known for speed, toughness, a vegetarian diet and outspoken views on the disparities in pay and media coverage between men's and women's cycling, Armistead's most memorable moments, before Sunday, had come in the velodrome. She won three medals at the 2009 world championships. After crashing in the scratch race, she remounted her bike and won the silver, then took bronze in the points race despite only being able to hold the handlebars with the thumb and forefinger on her right hand.

The outspoken Armistead made waves in the cozy world of British cycling last year, following the world road race championship in Copenhagen. The British Cycling braintrust had informed Nicole Cooke -- winner of the Olympic gold in Beijing -- that she should ride in support of Armitstead, whom the course favored. After the younger rider crashed in that race, Cooke rode her own race, and finished fourth. Later, Armitstead accused her teammate of selfishness. "I've never seen her work for a teammate."

The British press took that accusation and ran with it right up until this morning ("Battle of Britain," blared a headline in the Sunday Times.) Though she wanted to defend her Olympic gold, Cooke was informed before Sunday's race that the team leader would be Armitstead.

To the chagrin of Fleet Street, no internecine strife was forthcoming. Cooke, Emma Pooley and Lucy Martin executed the team plan to near-perfection. Cooke chased down early breakaways, Emma Pooley tenderized other teams with a flurry of stinging attacks. Halfway up the second (and final) ascent of a noisome, 1.6-mile eminence called Box Hill, Armitstead watched with keen interest as Russia's Olga Zabelinskaya launched an attack.

Why not? Everyone else had. The Dutch, in particular, had animated this 140-kilometer race, forcing teams to sap their strength in advance of Vos' inevitable surge.

The Russian's flyer looked like just one more perishable gambit ... until Vos the Boss decided to come across. Now this breakaway was legit. Now it was officially dangerous. With roughly 40 kilometers left to race, thought Armitstead, it was waaaaayyy to soon to break away from the peloton. But something told her to jump, and she jumped.

Joining her was American Shelly Olds, another ex-trackie capable of uncorking a ferocious sprint at the line. With Vos taking a huge dig at the front, that quartet built a slender, 23-second-lead with 35 klicks still to go.

And then there were three. In a cruel turn of events that almost certainly cost her a medal, Olds punctured a tire and tumbled off the podium.

"We capitalized on Shelly's puncture, unfortunately," allowed Shane Sutton, a coach for British Cycling, "Once you go from four to three, they all know they're going to medal, and then they're totally committed. After that, the gap actually went out."

With 10 kilometers to go and the escapees within city limits, a fresh cloudburst drenched the riders, delighting Armitstead, who knew that the heavy rain would keep the chase group at bay.

She said she was "chuffed" with silver, and her smile during the medals ceremony bore her out. It called to mind the consoling words sung by one of her elder countrymen.

You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes ... you get what you need.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.