Dutch rider van der Breggen wins Olympic gold in road race
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Sailing past her crumpled teammate, Anna van der Breggen suddenly realized she was the only hope the Netherlands had of defending its gold medal in the women's Olympic road race.
She did so in the most dramatic of fashions.
Working with Sweden's Emma Johansson and Italy's Elisa Longo Borghini to track down American rival Mara Abbott in sight of the finish, van der Breggen swept to the lead and won the dash to the line along Copacabana Beach on Sunday in the biggest victory of her career.
Van der Breggen was soon embraced by Dutch teammate Marianne Vos, who won gold at the 2012 London Games, and turned her thoughts to Annemiek van Vleuten, whose spectacular crash gave her a chance.
''We passed Annemiek on the road. It didn't look good,'' van der Breggen said. ''So after, Emma just said, `Do it for Annemiek,' and I said `Yeah, that's right.'''
Van der Breggen thrust her arms in the air as thousands of fans lining the course roared approval, and a light mist that had been threatening for hours finally began to fall.
It would have taken a downpour to dampen her spirits.
''I would have put money on Anna to win this race,'' said world champion Lizzie Armitstead, who was fifth for Britain. ''She's a phenomenal athlete and this course was designed for her.''
Abbott coasted across in fourth in another shattering disappointment for the United States, one of the strongest teams in the race. Shelley Olds was in a similar position to medal four years ago when a puncture on the run-in to the finish cost her.
In Abbott's case, it was simply a matter of tired legs.
''I saw the 300-meters to go sign and I thought ... `Oh my goodness. I could actually win this,''' Abbott said. ''Then I looked under my shoulder and they were right there.''
The climbing specialist obliterated most of the field on the hard climb of Vista Chinesa, then stayed upright when van Vleuten crashed on the same ruthless downhill that claimed the leaders Vincenzo Nibali and Sergio Henao and allowed Greg van Avermaet to win the men's race.
Van Vleuten was taken to the hospital for tests that revealed three small fractures in her spine, the Dutch team said. She will remain in intensive care for at least 24 hours.
''It was a horrendous crash,'' said Johansson, who added a second silver to the one she won in Beijing in 2008. ''The peloton is so small and we all know each other very well. We just hope she's OK.''
Borghini matched Imelda Chiappa's performance at the 1996 Atlanta Games for the best finish by an Italian woman, while Vos finished ninth - a strong performance after her 10-month injury hiatus.
Unlike the men's race on Saturday, the women stuck together for the first 100 kilometers, each attack quickly shut down by the powerhouse teams trying to set up their leaders.
Lotte Kopecky of Belgium spent time in front early, and Britain's Emma Pooley tried in vain to animate the proceedings. But the field was together after two trips of the Grumari Circuit, where jarring cobblestones caused so much trouble for the men.
Seven riders sprung away in sight of Vista Chinesa, the hard climb and descent that would decide the race. Among them was Vos, Trixi Worrack and former world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.
The Americans missed the break and were forced to work hard to bring it back.
Abbott accomplished it almost single-handedly, the world's top climber quickly catching them as the race tilted uphill. She also succeeded in splintering the peloton, pushing a tempo so strong that Vos and Armitstead - the silver medalist at the London Games - slowly dropped off.
With stretches approaching a gradient of 20 percent, Abbott and van Vleuten shook loose of the survivors of the first part of the climb and turned it into a two-woman race on the slick downhill.
On the last tight curve, van Vleuten locked up her wheels and crashed hard through the bend.
''I wasn't comfortable holding her wheel and the pace she was holding on the descent,'' Abbott said, ''and unfortunately she crashed. Hopefully it wasn't as bad as it looked.''
Abbott cautiously navigated the corner, then realized 10 kilometers of flats to Fort Copacabana stood in her way of gold. She got into her handlebar drops, sucked down one last energy gel and began to accelerate through streets lined with fans.
Three riders, working together behind her, caught Abbott just before she got to the line.
''I can't imagine being in her shoes right now. She's going to have a lot of sleepless nights,'' American teammate Kristin Armstrong said. ''Fourth is a wonderful position in the Olympics but also the hardest position.''