In what for the longest time seemed like a cycling version of the tortoise and the hare, the star-studded British team was ultimately unable to pull back a determined breakaway pack in an Olympic road race that turned into a two-man showdown down the stretch Saturday.
Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won gold, relegating Rigoberto Uran to silver. The Colombian was slightly ahead in the final stretch down The Mall in central London but paid for looking over his shoulder at the wrong moment. The 38-year-old Kazakh, on his other shoulder, accelerated and left Uran in his tracks.
"I didn't have any strength left for a final sprint," said Uran, who broke away with Vinokourov with under 10 kilometres left.
Norway's Alexander Kristoff was the best of the rest, winning a mass sprint to take bronze in the 249.5-kilometre race.
The exhausted Britons faded far into the pack.
Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, the lone Canadian in the field and competing just weeks after crashing out of the Tour de France, finished 63rd after spending much of the race in the back of the peloton.
The showcase event drew massive crowds on the first full day of Olympic competition with the home fans still basking in the glow of the previous night's opening ceremonies. Many hoped to see a talented Brit team set up world road race champion Mark Cavendish for one of his trademark explosive finishes.
And it played out that way until the end.
Britain was bristling with talent thanks to Cavendish, Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and British road race champion Ian Stannard.
Cavendish, the reigning world road race champion, was the star of the show with the Brits looking to pull him over the climbs and set him up for a sprint finish. And the British team controlled the peloton throughout, letting others dart ahead but always with an eye to run them down late in the race to launch Cavendish, known as the Manx Missile.
A breakaway group emerged, eventually followed by another. Behind them, the British led the peloton like the tip of a spear.
It seemed to be all going to plan. But the breakaways eventually coalesced into one 30-something group that included quality riders like Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert who worked together to stay in front. The Britons cranked up the pace at the head of the peloton but eventually ran out of steam.
Cavendish placed 29th, Stannard 94th, Wiggins 103rd, Millar 108th, and Froome 109th.
"We lost out, but a lot of teams lost out by planning the race against us," said Millar. "But we expected that. We can't complain because everyone knew what we were going to try and do so it was their job to try and derail us. Which they did."
Added Cavendish: "The guys all sat in the (post-race) tent absolutely spent. We did everything we could."
Local media offered a different spin.
"Cavendish Olympic medal bid fails," was the teaser on the BBC website.
"No Gold Pedal," said the Sun. "Shock Defeat for Team GB cyclist Mark Cavendish."
Vinokourov, third in the 2003 Tour de France and runner-up in the road race at the 2000 Olympics, served a two-year ban for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France and had to wait just two questions at the post-race news conference before being asked about it.
He called it "a closed chapter."
"The question was asked in 2010. I think there's no use asking the question again. I proved that I was able to come back and race and be good on the bike."
Noting that he still has a steel plate in his femur from his crash-filled career, Vinokourov said he was still hoping for success.
"Today the dream has come true," he said, adding he intends to stick to his plan to retire after the Games.
Unlike the Tour de France or world championships, the riders did not have the benefit of team radios and the maximum number of riders per country was five instead of nine. So the teams were short on bodies to serve their team leaders.
Uran said Britain "lost the medal because they were thinking of Mark Cavendish all the time. They had possibly too strong a team. Nobody dared attack them. But things got a little complicated for them and they had no team radio to react.
"We had important people with us (in the breakaway), Cancellara, the Spaniards. Everybody was watching each other. It turned out golden — sorry, silver — for me."
Said Vinokourov: "If this had been the world championship, this would have been a sprint finish obviously because the teams are more complete."
Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome and Stannard race professionally for Team Sky, which also features Uran and Toronto's Michael Barry. Millar is a teammate of Hesjedal at Garmin-Sharp.
Massive crowds lined the course, which started on what looked like a drag strip at The Mall before going past a shopping list of London tourist attractions, including Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park and Harrods before crossing Putney Bridge and heading for the countryside on a 71-kilometre route that led to nine loops of the 15.9-kilometre Box Hill. The field then returned to The Mall via a 40-kilometre route.
Uran rejected the suggestion that the crowds were too big or posed a danger to the riders.
"Not at all. There were a lot of people there, there was no danger," said the 25-year-old Colombian. "If anything they encouraged us because they were cheering us on the whole time."
Vinokourov made his move on the final lap of the Box Hill circuit, noting that the British riders were tiring.
He barely escaped disaster when Cancellara, leading the breakaway pack, wiped out taking a corner at speed with 15 kilometres remaining. He got back up, and finished in 106th position, bleeding and holding his arm.
For Hesjedal, it was a lonely journey despite spending most of the day in the back of the peloton.
"It was OK," the 31-year-old Victoria native said of his day. "It was fun to be out there but I just missed out at the end there. It was hard to kind of read what was going on. Great Britain was riding so strong and just really seemed like they were in control the whole time."
Fields turned into huge bicycle parking lots as spectators rode to see the race. Kids sat on high church walls to get a glimpse while cheering spectators packed the route. Two fans opted to view the race from up high, sitting on a hay bale hanging over a hedge thanks to a forklift.
Early gloom turned into sunshine as the race began leisurely through London streets, but there were soon hearts in mouths as a dog dashed across the road through the lead pack early on.
About a dozen riders fashioned an early breakaway with the powerful British team at the head of the trailing peloton. The lead was four minutes 10 seconds with 200 kilometres remaining.
A crash one hour 45 minutes into the race temporarily disrupted the peloton.
With 100 kilometres left, there was a chase group of 11 looking to reel in what was now 11-man breakaway. At the front of the peloton, the British began to turn up the heat and the gaps began closing.
Hesjedal continued in the back of the peloton. Gilbert, meanwhile, went alone at the front as the Box Hill loop neared an end. And the Brits kept waiting, like a cat about to pounce on a playful mouse.
Gilbert was caught five hours into the race, falling back into a breakaway group ahead of the peloton. The Brits were less than 30 seconds behind.
But that was about as close as it got.Suggest a correction