The Dutch cyclist produced a perfectly-timed burst to snatch the honours, with Emma Johansson of Sweden second and Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy third. Van der Breggen’s team mate Annemiek van Vleuten had looked on course for victory herself, having broken away with the USA’s Mara Abbott, but suffered a crash on the descent of the Vista Chinesa climb with around 10km of the 137km race remaining.
Van Vleuten’s tumble left Abbott, a Giro Rosa stage winner in July, as the sole leader on the flat run in to the finish line. Yet, with victory tantalisingly close and the finish line in sight, she was caught by the chasing trio and missed out on the medals altogether.
I focused and got in the race. This is the result of years of hard work, riding and training. Anna van der Breggen Netherlands - Anna van der Breggen Netherlands
Responding to her win, the 26-year-old Van der Breggen, who succeeds compatriot Marianne Vos as the Olympic champion, said: “I focused and got in the race. This is the result of years of hard work, riding and training."
“I am so happy with the gold,” she added. “All three of us realised we had to pull because the medals were in play. We saw that Mara was getting weaker and we gave it our all. It was everything for the win. “I am so happy to keep the gold medal within the Dutch cycling team. Marianne is a hero of mine and she worked so hard for me today. I'm so proud.”
Victorious in the Flèche Wallonne this year and last, and a runner-up in the 2015 World Championships, Van der Breggen is her country’s fourth Olympic women’s road race winner, a record for the event.
A silver medallist at Beijing 2008, Johansson said: “I was suffering all race.” Only the third woman to win two medals in the road race, after France’s Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli and the Netherland’s Monique Knol, the Swede added: “It’d be nice to be another step up the podium, but I did what I could.”
For her part, Borgini was delighted be up there with her: “I want to feel how much that medal weighs. I am shocked. We only just caught Mara.”
Reflecting on a heart-breaking finale, a disconsolate Abbott said: “I rode it to the max. I got to 200m and I thought: ‘Oh my God! This is going to happen’. Then they passed me.”
The race began with Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky making an early break, with Vos and France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prévot then forming part of a seven-rider breakaway that was eventually wound in by the US team. Abbott kicked on, with Great Britain’s 2015 world champion Lizzie Armitstead among those to feel the pace, though she fought back to finish fifth.
With 18km remaining, the unfortunate Van Vleuten powered clear of the field, with Abbott coming across to join her. Opening a 50-second lead on the chasing pack, the pair looked destined to battle it out for gold, until fate and the tireless chasing of the three eventual medallists took a hand.