Mon, September 23, 2013

No history for Clara Hughes — yet

Places 32nd in 'epic, awesome road race'

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Clara Hughes races ahead of the pack on the Box Hill circuit during the women's cycling road race at the London 2012 Olympic Games, July 29, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)



LONDON - Somehow, despite the rain, the cold and the disappointing 32nd place finish, Canadian Olympic legend Clara Hughes was able to smile after Sunday's road race.

"I've got dirt in my eyes, and (I'm) freezing cold, so I've got to go get some warmth. (But) it was an awesome day," a shivering Hughes told reporters gathered at the finish line near historic Westminster.

"It was epic, it was awesome," she added. "There were so many people on the course and you were wondering if people would come out and watch the women's race, and it was amazing. I can't say enough about the support in the pouring rain. (But) it was (also) terrifying. It was really technical and the roads were slippery, crashes. I mean racing in the rain is not fun. This is like three out of three Olympic road races for me in the rain."

Conditions on the 140-kilometre race, won in a last-minute sprint by Dutch star Marianne Vos in 3:35.29, were perfect for a duck, perhaps. But for the racers, they were absolutely miserable.

"They were crazy," said Canadian rider Denise Ramsden. "I have contacts and I was constantly blinking and just trying to be able to see. Some of the corners you couldn't even really see where you were and where you were heading."

Hughes, of course, is known for her perpetual optimism and though she finished well back of the leaders, The Red Rocket believes Sunday's race sets her up nicely for Wednesday's Time Trial -- and a medal in that event will make her the most decorated Olympic athlete in Canadian history. The Winnipeg native is tied with speed skater Cindy Klassen with six.

"It felt really good, I climbed every section at the front, so going into the time trial I have a really good sensation and I'm really excited," said the Quebec-based cyclist.

The three Canadians in the race -- Hughes, sprint specialist Joelle Numainville of Montreal and Ramsden of Hay River, NWT -- remained in the thick of the action for much of the race and were planning on making a move before Numainville crashed with about 15K left. The young Quebec racer got back and finished 12th, but the accident ended any chance of Canada coming away with a medal.

"Towards the end we were going to work for Joelle for the sprint, but unfortunately she crashed and just made it back at the end, so that kind of threw that off a little bit," said Ramsden, who finished 27th. "I think she was pretty toast from having to chase back on."

Despite the buckets of cold rain, which Ramsden said felt like hail, the race was altogether enthralling with numerous attacks and counter-attacks, crashes and a sensational finish, which saw Vos sprint away for the gold with about 200 metres left. Vos, who won the women's points race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, broke away from the lead pack with three others with about 45k to go.

"We were four, but then (Shelly) Olds (U.S.) punctured, and then we (three) were riding for a medal, and that's a big advantage," said Vos, 25.

The other two were Elizabeth Armitstead of Great Britain and Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia, who made the first major break during the race that eventually dragging Vos, Olds and Armitstead with her. The final three rode together for the final 40k or so before Vos finally made a break with the finish line in sight. When she took off, Armitstead went with her, but couldn't catch up, and finished second, right on Vos' shadow-- giving the host nation their first medal at the 2012 Olympics, much to the joy of the thousands upon thousands of soaked fans who lined the route.

"I am very, very happy," said Armitstead. "To be an Olympic medallist at your home Games and the first one is something I cannot get my head around."

Zabelinskaya was third and offered the highest of praise for the gold medallist.

"She is a machine," said Zabelinskaya.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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