The road decides the race. Yellow & Gold

In 2008, Mark Cavendish was the only British cyclist who failed to medal at the Beijing Olympics. He competed on the track that year, not the road, as he does in his professional career, and placed 9th in the Madison. His partner in that race was Bradley Wiggins. For himself, Wiggins won two gold medals, but had nothing left to help Cav along. They didn’t speak for months after the Olympics ended.

It’s a story I hadn’t heard before, but which adds an edge to their story at the 2012 London Olympics. Wiggins and Cavendish race together on Team Sky in their professional life. As the fastest sprinter in the peloton, and the current rider with the most stage wins, Cavendish is used to being the centre of his team. He’s used to riding behind a leadout of three or four guys, then taking the win in a sprint.

But when your team holds the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, as well as the best chance to win it in Paris, a sprinter’s dreams fall to the sidelines. Mark Cavendish gave up, not just stage wins, but his defence of the green jersey he won last year. He gave it up for yellow, which means more to the team and to Britain, a country who has never seen a rider of their own win a Grand Tour.

By the time the last time trial was over, Bradley Wiggins knew he had won the Tour de France. While the final stage along the Champs-Élysées is mostly tradition, a victory lap for the Tour winner (complete with champagne), the sprinters have one last finish line to cross. This year, the yellow jersey rode the leadout to get his teammate the win. When Mark Cavendish took the win in the last stage of the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins cheered like it was his own.

That leadout was only the beginning of an apology for the Olympics in 2008. The Brits have a full five-man road team at the 2012 Olympics in London. They’re not only the hometown favourites, they’re also the strongest team in the Olympic peloton. First, there’s Bradley Wiggins: two stages, 14 days in yellow, and the first Brit to win the Tour. Chris Froome came in second and took a stage win in the mountains. Mark Cavendish wears the rainbow stripes as the current World Champion in the Road Race. The three of them, with Ian Stannard, ride together all year long on Team Sky. Only David Millar races against them when they’re not at the Olympics. He won a stage at the last Tour, too, for his professional team, Garmin.

Great Britain’s team is strong, maybe the strongest. It sounds like the makings of a boring race. Five hours on the road, and everyone thinks they know who’s going to win. The smart money has been on Cavendish since he was named to the Olympic team. Instead, the home team’s strength means every other country works that much harder to bring them down. It means every other country works together to make the British work for gold. It makes for breakaways, chases, and solo attacks—all the drama cycling fans like to see on the road.

Going into any race as the favourite is hard. Going into the Olympics in your home country after winning the biggest cycling race in the world is the hardest of all. Great Britain was cocky, and though cocky often works for Cav, it didn’t work this time. One by one, his team fell behind: Chris Froome with a mechanical, and David Millar, too. Then we saw Bradley Wiggins riding at the back of the peloton. The breakaway stayed away, like it almost never does.

In the end, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won the gold. Cavendish finished less than a minute behind, but 29th. Vino has said he’s retiring, that he’s ridden his last Tour, and this will be a nice cap to a long career. But this wasn’t how Great Britain’s Olympics were supposed to begin. This wasn’t how Wiggins wanted to say sorry.

You can’t make gold with yellow. The road decides the race.

The men’s road race started at 1:30AM PST. I stayed up to watch Mark Cavendish win like we all thought he would. Two hours into the race, I started writing this essay. Then Vino won the gold, and I had to rewrite the last paragraph. But here it is anyway, an alternate universe, if you will, where the fastest man on two wheels wins the one race he never has:

When the race ends in a bunch sprint, as one-day classics often do, no one can beat Cavendish. Left to his own efforts, he’ll beat you at the line. But Mark Cavendish wasn’t alone today. He had Bradley Wiggins, who wanted nothing more than to help Cavendish to the gold medal they didn’t win four years ago—an apology and a thank you for three weeks of help to the yellow jersey. He had an entire country, his girlfriend and still-new baby daughter, his four countrymen behind him, and even his pro teammate and Tour roommate, Bernie Eisel, rode with the British team in his Austrian colours.

Cav couldn’t lose.

⇓ 12.08.12 yellowandgold.pdf