Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press
Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press
LONDON – Two-time world champion Giorgia Bronzini suspects the usual cast of characters will challenge her for the Olympic gold medal in the women’s road race Sunday.
Then she threw out a wild card: American sprinter Shelley Olds.
Turns out Olds thinks she has a shot, too.
“Sure,” Olds said, when asked whether she agreed with Bronzini’s assessment, made after the often-overlooked rider from Massachusetts beat the Italian for a stage victory in the Giro Donne.
“I’m confident I’m one of the best sprinters,” Olds said. “I think we have the strongest team, but I don’t know what will happen. I know I’ll be happy if it comes to a sprint.”
She should know better than to assume anything after the men’s race.
The heavily favored British team of sprinter Mark Cavendish was left to race for pride Saturday when a late breakaway sent Alexander Vinokourov to a surprising gold medal.
“I don’t know what will happen in the race,” Olds said “But we have a lot of cards to play.”
Reigning time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong and former world time trial champion Amber Neben will be there to help shepherd Olds over Box Hill, which created so much chaos in the men’s race. Olds also will have Evelyn Stevens, who finished third overall at the Giro Donne.
Of course, all three of them are also threats in the same kind of breakaways that shook up the men’s race – hence, Olds’ pronouncement that the Americans have plenty of cards to play.
With her as the ace up their sleeve.
“The women are a powerhouse team, really,” said USA Cycling’s Jim Miller, who was charged with putting it together. “You have two former world champions. You have one of the better sprinters in the world, and then you have a fourth rider in Evie Stevens who can win anything.
“We’ll put a rider in almost any situation,” he said. “We’re not too afraid of too many scenarios.”
That doesn’t mean the Americans won’t be watching out for the same riders as Bronzini, among them Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and German veteran Ina-Yoko Teutenberg.
“It will be a tough race, but I do not think I can be satisfied with silver or bronze,” Vos said recently. “Am I stronger than ever? Yes, I think I can say that.”
Clara Hughes of Canada also believes she has a shot.
The 39-year-old Hughes made it to the podium at three consecutive Winter Olympics as a speedskater but only recently returned to cycling, where she won two bronze medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Hughes has a better chance of success in next week’s time trial, but a medal in either race would send her past Cindy Klassen as Canada’s most decorated Olympian.
“I’m excited to be here,” Hughes said. “My ancestors are from here. I feel at home, being really pale and red hair. I feel really ordinary. I kind of like it.”
Hughes spent about six months after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics deciding whether to keep racing, then she made the decision to switch back from speedskating to cycling.
“I think I’m a case study, honestly,” she said. “It’s just fascinating how the body’s composition can change, how the energy’s system, the engine, can shift from being trained for several minutes of effort to being trained for a 140-kilometer road race. I found it fascinating.”
Then there’s the British team, which will be trying to deliver the Olympic medal that the men failed to do.
The course doesn’t necessarily favor reigning gold medalist Nicole Cooke, but she’ll be given freedom to chase more Olympic glory if a break opens up. Otherwise, she’ll help teammates Emma Pooley and Lucy Martin try to set up sprinter Elizabeth Armitstead.
“I haven’t had my best form, but I think things are coming round well now for race day,” Cooke said. “We know we’re one of the strong nations in cycling now. This is another fantastic opportunity for us all to show what we’re capable of.”
Perhaps re-energize the downcast British cycling fans, too.
“For us, it’s fairly obvious that the best option is an open tactic,” Armitstead said. “We’ve got four cards that we can play, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”