With the balance of power always shifting and the likely winner never certain, it was a crash on the final descent from the main climb that saw the biggest shift in fortunes.
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) forced the pace on the final climb of the race, jumping clear with Rafal Majka (Poland) and Sergio Henao (Colombia). The trio looked likely to fight out the win amongst themselves, but Nibali and Henao crashed on the descent from the Vista Chinesa, leaving Majka to dodge his fallen companions and push on for the line alone.
Attacks from behind flowed thick and fast, with Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) and Greg van Avermaet (Belgium) digging deep to chase down the Polish rider with just over a kilometre remaining.
The fight for gold came down to the sprint and van Avermaet was peerless, jumping first along the inside finishing curve and emerging the winner by several lengths over Fuglsang in silver and a cramping Majka in the bronze medal position.
As it happened
The Olympic road race course departed from Copacabana beach, with the promise of cobbles, climbs and drama before the riders would arrive back in the same spot after a 241.5 kilometre detour.
The Germans strung out the peloton early with Tony Martin hammering away on the front with his team-mate Simon Geschke using the pace-setting to launch the early breakaway.
He was quickly joined by Sven Erik Bystrom (Norway), Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia), Michael Albasini (Switzerland), Pavel Kochetkov (Russia) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland). The six riders formed a fairly potent sextet, but with over 200 kilometres remaining, the peloton were happy to let them build up an advantage, particularly as none of the really big nations were represented in the escape.
With a maximum advantage of the break stretching to eight minutes, the peloton woke up and the major nations Italy, Britain, France and Spain came to the front to keep the escapees in check.
As the peloton traversed the cobbles, bottles were lost, chains were dropped and riders from the lesser nations got spat out the back of the bunch. The last time through the cobbles proved the most chaotic, with the peloton splitting to bits and Richie Porte getting his second mechanical for the race and having to fight his way back on terms with the rest. Late call up from cross country mountain bikes, Scott Bowden, was on the scene to offer support on both occasions and he acquitted himself well in his domestique role.
The teams advantaged by the split attempted to drive their lead home briefly but it became clear that with over 110 kilometres still left to run, it would be far too far out to attempt such a move.
With all the action back in the peloton driving the pace, the time to the break shrank drastically and the main bunch had their quarry within sight on the long straights leading onto the final circuit containing the difficult double climb of Canoas and Vista Chinesa with three ascents of the climb in store for the riders and 15 kilometres of downhill and flat roads from the summit to the finish line.
On the first ascent, the leading group of six quickly thinned to the duo of Kwiatkowski and Kochetkov, but the action behind saw some of the big teams starting to show their hand as a group containing Greg van Avermaet (Belgium), Damiano Caruso (Italy), Geraint Thomas (Britain), Rein Taaramae (Estonia) and Sergio Henao (Colombia) bridged up to the front of the race.
Behind, Spain were compelled to chase the move as the major country to miss out on joining the move. They looked to be covering the move fairly successfully the second time up the Vista Chinesa, keeping their leaders in with a chance of winning, but Italy attacked on the descent and made it across to the front group with Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali.
Not many in the peloton were quick enough to react, but Rafal Majka (Poland) and Adam Yates (Britain) did manage to make it across.
Richie Porte (Australia) crashed trying to keep up on the descent and with the pace of those in front of him, he was effectively out of the race as soon as he touched down, leaving Australia’s hopes in Simon Clarke’s hands in the third group on the road. Porte did remount, but had to climb off soon after, taken to hospital with a suspected broken collarbone.
Spain sensed the race slipping away, and tried to bridge across on the flat on the back of a Valverde attack with Rodriguez and the Portugese Rui Costa in tow. It became clear that they wouldn’t make it and they reassimilated into the main group, with Valverde driving the pace in service of Rodriguez, riding in the final race of his career.
This bit of sacrifice paid off when the race hit the third and final ascent of the Vista Chinesa, as Rodriguez launched and managed to bridge over to the leaders. Behind Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) and Julien Alaphillipe (France) tried similar bridging moves and made it onto the back of the front group.
Vincenzo Nibali then used one of the harder parts of the climb to launch his big attack. Sergio Henao latched straight onto his back wheel and Rafal Majka wasn’t far behind. With the descent and the flat sprint finish remaining, perhaps Nibali thought his best bet was to take risks on the downhill.
The trio went over the top with a handy advantage but a crash on the descent took out Nibali and Henao, leaving Rafal Majka alone in the lead as he managed to avoid the fallen riders. Nibali and Henao were left sitting by the side of the road looking inconsolable as their chance at gold slipped through their fingers.
It was left to the group of eight riders to chase down Majka, but with Olympic medals on the line and no team-mates to sacrifice themselves for a leader it came down to a frantic series of attacks to try and bridge to Majka.
An attack by Jakob Fuglsang was the first to snap the elastic with van Avermaet locked in on his wheel and the favourite to win a sprint finish. Majka’s advantage gradually got whittled away, with the anguish on Majka’s face was evident as the duo closed in on the Pole.
Once the catch was made and it was clear that the three would contest the win, they prepared for the sprint but it was always going to be nigh on impossible for Majka and Fuglsang to beat the rapid finish of van Avermaet.
He jumped early in the sprint, hugged the inside line around the finishing bend to win the gold medal by several lengths.