The riders in the peloton may just have been learning to cycle when Stephen Roche wrote his own special chapter in the history by winning the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and world championships in 1987.
But each time his son, Nicolas, attacked the peloton on Saturday, he was quickly reeled in, his peers clearly unwilling to allow freedom afforded to other riders who enjoyed long spells up the road.
The race that was fought out in muggy, overcast conditions created by a temperature high of 32C and humidity of 94% under the usual overcast sky, produced a surprise winner in the least fancied of the powerful Spanish team — 30-year-old Samuel Sanchez from Oviedo, who recorded only his second ever win outside of Spain.
The race fell to him when a six-man break was established on the final circuit after Fabian Cancellara, the lone Swiss rider in the peloton, came up from the main bunch and towed two dropped riders, Michael Rogers (Australia) and the Russian Alexander Kolobnev, back up to join Sanchez, Italian Davide Rebellin and Andy Schlek of Luxembourg.
Kolobnev led out the sprint, with Rebellin perfectly poised on his wheel but Sanchez, isolated on the right, powered past to win from Rebellin, who celebrated his 37th birthday on the podium, with Cancellara rewarded with bronze.
By that time, Roche had paid the price for his attacking earlier in the race, while Philip Deignan’s asthma took its toll in the final laps.
“It was very, very difficult,” Roche said. “It was a different race to what I thought it would be — different to any other race, really.
“I was surprised that they let 25 riders away. I was just chasing really hard behind and eventually, when the race really started with four laps to go, it was very difficult.
“I went off the front twice on the first lap when there were two riders away and then with three laps to go again. I was in the right position each time. The Spaniards and Italians were marking each other really closely and other riders had escaped. I thought maybe if they marked each other I could slip away but they chased me down each time.
“I struggled on the second last lap but I got back on the descent but there was just nothing left on the last climb. I was about 10 minutes behind which was not too bad. It was what I was expecting.”
The climbs along the Great Wall were savage and there was no respite on the descent due to the headwind.
“There were seven really hard climbs but we were not compensated by the descents because of the very strong wind,” Roche said.
“And since there was a headwind there the first few were riding but the others were half freewheeling and fighting for position at the same time. When you freewheel for too long, once you start pedalling hard again the lactic acid is a problem in the muscles so it is always a fight on the descent to keep the legs going.”
Both Roche and Philip Deignan returned to Europe yesterday morning. Roche rides the five-day Tour of Limousin in France next week, straight after that a Pro Tour event in France and a couple of days later the three-week Tour of Spain.
“I am proud to have taken part in the Olympic Games, not just because my dad rode it as well but because it was one of my great ambitions.
“The only other great thing I have to do now is ride the Tour (de France) and I’ll have ridden in every big race.”
Philip Deignan said the heat and humidity combined with the steep climb made it a very difficult race.
“It really got to me in the last three laps,” he said.
“I had some difficulties breathing with my asthma.
“They accelerated with three laps to go and then two laps to go and that was just a bit two much for me.
“I am very happy I competed and that I finished the Olympics because it is a very special race. Hopefully I’ll be back again in four years time.”
Team manager Frank Campbell was delighted with his two-man team.
“They rode very well if we look at the calibre of people they were mixing it with and the people in their finishing groups,” he said.