The sun was shining, the streets bordering the 250km course were packed with spectators and Team GB had the most powerful, most celebrated team in the men's road race. It was surely all set up for another great day in the continuing success story that is British cycling.
Fans peeking up The Mall had hoped, almost expected, to see Mark Cavendish sitting on the wheel of a rival with Great Britain's first gold medal of the Games just a powerful lunge away.
Instead, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan and Columbia's Rigoberto Uran comprised the unlikely double act who contested the finish. It was the wily Vinokourov who came up on his rival's blindside and sprinted away to take gold. Norway's Alexander Kristoff took the bronze. Cavendish finished 29th, 40 seconds behind the winner.
The crowd had gathered in unprecedented numbers to hail the 27-year-old Englishman who has won 23 Tour de France stages, but who has come up short in the Olympics. They were faced with the less enticing task of applauding a 38-year-old drugs cheat who announced his retirement a year ago after he broke his leg in a crash in the Tour de France.
Vinokourov's conviction for blood doping in 2007 was also followed by the announcement that it was all over for him. He will now ride off into the sunset with a gold medal fixed around his neck.
The sniffiness about Vinokourov's tarnished past is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that David Millar, leader of Team GB, has served a sentence for a similar offence.
The repentant Scot had a crucial role in yesterday's race as he sought to control the pace, particularly on the climbs, to protect Cavendish so the Manx rider could produce his customary devastating finish.
It was a strategy that failed because of two factors. The first is that the British team – including the Tour de France winner and runner-up in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and Ian Stannard – did not have enough numbers to share the workload evenly over such a long distance. World championships have teams of eight, but four men protecting a fifth was always going to be a tough task over 250km.
They needed help and it did not come because – and this is the second factor – teams either trusted the Britons to do the job themselves or feared they would be colluding in a Cavendish sprint to the line.
"It seems like most teams are happy not to win as long as we don't win," said a disappointed Cavendish. "It's the story of our lives in cycling. It shows what a strong nation we are. We've got to take the positives from that and take it as a compliment.
"No-one wants to help us. The Australians sit there. They always just ride negatively -they're happy to see us lose. The Germans came a bit too late."
He praised his team-mates who worked tirelessly to try to provide him with an Olympic medal. He said: "We can't make excuses. We did everything we said we were going to do and more. To see the guys with the calibre they've got ride like that for me is incredible. I couldn't be prouder of them. They're still sat there in their kit in the tent. They're absolutely spent. They just rode 250k, they've gone 60k an hour for the last hour."
However, Cavendish was never at the medal end of the race. An early 12-man breakaway group built a lead of six minutes and was eventually joined by 10 counter-attackers. Belgian Philippe Gilbert then went solo only to be reeled in 42km from the finish. Then another attack was launched by a pack of 32 riders, including Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland and Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain, who both entertained medal hopes.
This group built up a 55-second lead that Team GB could never redress. There could be little consolation for Cavendish, but the crowds were astonishing and inspiring. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to provide a wonderful atmosphere. He said: "All our ears are ringing. It was tremendous the whole way round. I'll remember it forever."
There was continual uproar as the peloton, driven by Team GB, sought to cut the deficit and this excitement was heightened when Cancellara crashed into a barrier after coming out of Richmond Park, while another major contender, Belgium's Tom Boonen, fell off the pace.
The repeated question being relayed down the course was whether Team GB had the legs to pull Cavendish back into contention, but the race was decided in the unlikely environs of Putney High Street.
Uran, aged 25, and Vinokourov broke clear of the field and it soon became clear the gold medal was now the subject of a duel. But when Uran glanced to see how far ahead the pair were it was a tacit admission that he was tiring and an invitation for Vinokourov to surge clear.
"It is unbelievable," said the Kazakh. It certainly was for the thousands of fans on The Mall who come to cheer a British victory.
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