RIO DE JANEIRO
One long-held truism of the Olympics is there are no medals for fourth place, only the crushing disappointment of coming oh-so-close to a life-changing step up the podium.
If there were, the U.S. road cycling team would feel much better about the Summer Games.
There have been six road cycling events the past two Olympics, including the men’s and women’s road races over the weekend. Three times the Americans have finished fourth, including the stirring and heartbreaking finish by six-time Iron Horse Bicycle Classic champion Mara Abbott along Copacabana Beach on Sunday.
After animating the race on the final climb of Vista Chinesa, and sweeping into the lead when Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crashed hard on the descent, Abbott tried in vain to hold onto a slim advantage against three strong riders working together to catch her.
They reached her within sight of the finish line.
“I knew it was probably going to come down to the wire,” Abbott said later, her eyes dry but the signs of the tears that welled up still evident. “I just didn’t know which side.”
The two-man squad of Taylor Phinney and Brent Bookwalter hardly had aspirations in their race Saturday. The course suited neither and Phinney pulled out midway through to save himself for the time trial, though Bookwalter still finished 16th in what he considered a positive result.
Still, it left the Americans ruing their misfortunes.
At the London Games four years ago, Phinney was beaten by Alexander Kristoff in a sprint to the finish at Buckingham Palace for bronze. Four days later, he posted the fourth-fastest mark in the time trial at Hampton Court Palace to again finish just off the podium.
That in part is why Phinney, a track cycling world champion, skipped the Tour de France and spent the past six weeks training specifically for Wednesday’s time trial.
“It was a tough decision to pull out (Saturday) but I ultimately came to the conclusion that I’m here to win a medal in the time trial,” he said. “I’m not just here for the Olympic experience.”
The U.S. road team hasn’t struck out entirely.
Kristin Armstrong has won the past two Olympic time trials and came out of retirement early this year to chase a third. She also pulled out of her road race before the finish.
“I thought I was going to have a really hard time whether I should pull out,” Armstrong said, “but I gave everything. I didn’t have a second here I thought I could go any farther or harder.
“So I was just hoping and praying that my teammate could make it to the line and win gold,” she said. “I can’t imagine being in her shoes right now.”
It was hardly a surprise that Abbott was in position to medal.
The American women’s road team was favored to win gold, but mostly because of the world’s top-ranked rider, Megan Guarnier, and world hour-record holder Evelyn Stevens. Yet the hard course with its brutal ascents was tailored perfectly for Abbott, one of the sport’s strongest climbers.
The image of Dutch gold medalist Anna van der Breggen, silver medalist Emma Johansson and bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini chasing her down certainly made for captivating television.
It also proved to be another gut-punch for the U.S. team.
“It feels awful,” Abbott said, “but at the same time, you’re supported by a team that’s worked so hard to help you win. We had a really amazing team here.”
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.