Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead begins Britain’s medal haul

Smoke rises from the Olympic rings as they are suspended over the stadium during the Opening Ceremony
Smoke rises from the Olympic rings as they are suspended over the stadium during the Opening Ceremony
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BUCKINGHAM Palace remains the top attraction in London but Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead was not far behind when she sprinted up The Mall to take the silver medal, the first British medal of London 2012, in the Olympic women’s road race.

Great Britain needed that.

True, it is early days at London 2012 but the excitement generated by a stunning opening ceremony was in danger of dissipating with no early metal being garnered by home competitors.

The disappointment of Mark Cavendish’s failure in the men’s road race on Saturday was forgotten, however, as Armitstead rode a brilliant race in filthy weather conditions in the rural lanes of Surrey.

Beaten only by a wheel’s width by Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, widely regarded as the fastest road race sprinter on the planet.

This is what the Olympics is about.

“The best race of her career,” was how former gold medallist Chris Boardman described Armitstead’s feat.

A silver for Britain in her debut Olympics in typically British weather.

How good does that sound for the 23-year-old from Otley, Yorkshire, who did not own a bicycle until she was 16 and who fell into cycling more by accident than design when a coach from Britain’s Olympic talent team visited her school and had a hunch she might have a competitive nature?

What a perceptive coach.

That was seven years ago. That competitive nature has been honed since with Armitstead taking team pursuit gold in the world championships of 2009 and silver in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010.

But a medal in a home Olympics beats all that.

All the more so because Armitstead, a renowned sprinter, did it with courage and style amid thunderclaps and torrential rain which saw riders crashing and punctures galore.

It was riveting action, witnessed again by thousands lining the route, some 15-deep in the foothills of Box Hill. Waving their Union flags, urging on the British team, comprising Nicole Cooke, gold medallist in Beijing, Emma Pooley, Lucy Martin and Armitstead.

“It is the most special thing I have ever experienced,” said Armitstead of the home support. “It was crazy, so inspiring.”

Truly, road race cycling has become the sexy sport.

The crucial breakaway came on the second descent of Box Hill and was led by Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya, Armitstead and Vos of the Netherlands.

There was one point when Vos looked behind, anxious that the peloton might be catching the breakaway.

“Come on,” shouted Armitstead, knowing they had to be brave if metal was to be forged. “Come on.” The Yorkshire lass was not for turning back.

Let’s not forget the part of Pooley, who controlled the race in the crucial stage around Box Hill, doing the hard yards, protecting Armitstead.

Cooke, too, did her bit to put to bed the suggestion that she is not a team player, one that surfaced when she did not wait for her teammate when Armitstead suffered a puncture in the 2011 world champioships.

For the record Russia’s Zabelinskaya took the bronze but who cares who came third. Much more pertinent was the momentum Armitstead’s silver might pump into the rest of the home challenge.

We have been here before. Jason Queally set the gold rush rolling in Sydney 2000. Sir Chris Hoy did the same in Athens and Cooke was Britain’s first big medallist four years ago. Cycling success really does seem to rub off on the rest.

“The GB ball is rolling now,” said Armitstead.

It certainly seemed that way as Armitstead sprinted up The Mall.