Olympic Despatches: Road Race Recap

The wait is finally over: the Olympics have arrived.

With the preparations five years in the making following the delay to the Tokyo Games due to coronavirus, the stakes were arguably higher than ever

With the men’s and women’s road races some of the first events of the Games, much of the pre-race discussion centred around the disparity between the two, from the varying length of said course (234km for the men vs 137km for the women) to the relative size of the peloton (134 for the men, 67 for the women). This point of contention, in the case of the number of competitors at least, has been addressed and will be comparable at the next Games, in Paris in 2024, with 90 riders per race.

The Form

For the men, the form riders were Tadej Pogacar and Wout van Aert, both fresh from successful campaigns at the Tour de France, yet with less than week between the end of the Tour and the road race, would the riders coming from the strains of a three week Grand Tour have the legs to compete on a challenging, hilly parcours across a monument-distance race? Fresher was Primoz Roglic, who was the unknown quantity – having missed out on the chance to avenge his 2020 defeat in the Tour de France after injuries sustained on day four in this year’s edition, there was no doubting his desire for the prize, but would he be recovered enough?

The favourites for the women were, arguably, all on one team. The Dutch super-team was a star-studded who’s-who of cycling achievement, consisting of greatest cyclist of all time Marianne Vos, reigning Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen, all-round achiever Annemiek van Vleuten and young pretender to the Dutch throne, 2021 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Course winner Demi Vollering.

So to the races.

Whilst the Olympics hasn’t always been a top priority for riders historically, the fact it only comes around once every four years, and the ranking system that determines how many riders each nation may select, results in a rarefied atmosphere in which one-day racing tactics apply, but in a uniquely different way. Whilst regular racing season sees teammates working for one another towards a shared goal, an Olympic medal is an individual achievement, and where some teams succeed in navigating the shifting dynamics of moving from trade team to national team mode, others are not so lucky, and suffer from a lack of teammates altogether, or from being part of a team so small they are unable to have any influence on the race.

All of these factors combine to produce difficult racing conditions, tactically speaking. Of course, as in the regular season, the peloton will not allow anyone deemed a threat to be part of the day’s breakaway group, however with little to no hierarchy within this makeshift peloton, it’s difficult to police, as smaller nations or lone riders look to the stronger nations to do the work of chasing down unsuitable breakaway riders, or pulling on the peloton throughout the day.

Neither the men’s or the women’s race, however, had this problem. From kilometre zero, both sets of competitors were aware of their relative standings and there was no attempt made by any rider to upset the intrinsic order; each race featured a breakaway group of riders who, diplomatically speaking, were considered non-threatening.

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The Beginning

In the men’s race, the break consisted of eight riders including South Africa’s Nic Dlamini and Slovakia’s Juraj Sagan, and the peloton were happy to let them go.

In the women’s race, equally, the break was quickly approved by the peloton, consisting of five riders, from Namibia, Poland, Austria, Israel and South Africa.

The early stages of both races were measured. Humidity meant a lot of water breaks and the bunch held back, allowing the early break to build their advantage. The gaps grew out in both races to a distance that had everyone asking questions of the peloton: 17 minutes at one point in the men’s race and almost 11 in the women’s.

Slovenia and Belgium controlled the pace for the men, with former Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet and Slovenian powerhouse Jan Tratnik doing the lion’s share of the work.

This status quo remained in place for the following 100km, as many of the big favourites for the race who did not have big teams behind them remained hidden in the peloton, understandable given the two in-form riders and pre-race favourites, Tadej Pogacar and Wout van Aert, belonged to two of the nations with the strongest teams. Britain’s hopes were dealt a blow as Tao Geoghegan Hart crashed taking down teammate Geraint Thomas and Italian Giulio Ciccone in the process. Thankfully, all three were able to continue.

For the women, whilst the peloton looked to the Dutch, waiting to see what their play would be, Germany and Australia controlled the pace, with the USA, Great Britain and Canada visible from time to time too. Germany’s Trixi Worrack played pacemaker for a large part of the race, and two pairs of chasers tried their luck, riders from Ethiopia and Eritrea first, and later a pair from Chile and Paraguay. Neither stuck, but nothing changed, the Dutch not appearing as a cohesive unit, no-one else willing to push the pace, and the gap remained static for a long time.

The Middle

As the race hit the slopes of Mount Fuji for a long, steady climb, the early casualties began to drop away, including perhaps most surprisingly, Omar Fraile and Alejandro Valverde for Spain, the latter of whom many had tipped for a medal prior to the race.

The descent proved more decisive, with the Italians looking strong, Giulio Ciccone attacking along with Alberto Bettiol who looked very much up for the challenge. The gap to the breakaway was falling rapidly as the men took to the Fuji International Speedway for the first laps of the day. With just over 50km to go, Remco Evenepoel (BEL), Eddie Dunbar (IRE) and Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) formed an unlikely chase group but despite gaining a few seconds on the peloton, they were caught before the group left the circuit.

The women had less climbing yet their ascent of Donushi Road was a similar long, steady climb, and had a similar rate of attrition.

Once over the climb, the days’ break fractured, leaving a three-woman group of Poland’s Anna Plichta, Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer and Israel’s Omer Shapira still out ahead with a ten minute gap.

A crash was reported featuring Annemiek van Vleuten and Denmark’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig but it was not televised; neither rider was badly affected though and Vos dropped back to pace van Vleuten. Once back in the group, this seemed to activate the Dutch, and with 61.6km to go Vollering was the first to strike out with a long-range attack. The peloton responded, with USA’s Ruth Winder the next to try her luck.

The attacks kept coming and the gap to the break began to close with the injection of pace. Hitting the second climb of the day, the Kagosaka Pass, cracks began to appear, and riders began to be dropped, including Australia’s Amanda Spratt and Grace Brown. Demi Vollering’s pained face, climbing with gritted teeth displayed the fierce nature of the climb and while Ruth Winder tried once again to make an impression, it was van Vleuten who made the decisive move. With 54.1km remaining, she launched one of her trademark long-range attacks, burying herself to draw clear of the rest of the peloton and set off up the road after the breakaway.

Lone ranger: van Vleuten’s solo strike for the Netherlands

The End

Similarly to the Kagosaka Pass for the women, the soaring gradient of the Mikuni Pass blew the race wide open for the men. With the breakaway neutralised at the beginning of the short, sharp ascent, a select group quickly established itself at the front of the bunch, as behind, casualties fell away, most notably Primoz Roglic, who simply couldn’t stay with the pace following early troubles with cramp.

Pogacar, Canada’s Michael Woods and USA’s Brandon McNulty drew clear of the pack as the climb progressed, and were shortly following by Kwiatkowski (POL), Carapaz (ECU), Uran (COL) and Bettiol. Of the remaining riders who were not spat out by the climb, van Aert, Mollema (NED), Fuglsang (DEN) and Gaudu (FRA) were the ones able to chase, but despite not being a pure climber, Wout van Aert was a marked man, and was left to work at the front to bring back the leaders.

Heat haze: the front of the men’s race hits the top of the Mikuni Pass

As they reached the top of the climb the elite group came back together for the summit, GB’s Adam Yates and Germany’s Max Schachmann bridged the gap and the selection had been made. Barring a small miracle one of these men would ride to Olympic glory.

As the finish line drew closer, the inevitable attacks began. Mollema was first to stick his nose in the wind, followed by Fuglsang who managed to stretch out a small gap on the rest for a short while. Next up, Pogacar and Kwiatkowski, a dangerous pair to let go; van Aert once again was the man to chase it down, with a huge burst of speed.

Pairs of riders are arguably more dangerous than lone attackers or larger groups in the late stages of a race so when Brandon McNulty attacked taking Carapaz with him, it wasn’t a surprise to see them quickly pull out a gap. The rest of the pack did not chase it down and before long the gap grew to 15 seconds. Kwiatkowski, then Woods once again tried a dig, and once again Wout van Aert stamped on the attempts.

McNulty and Carapaz worked well together on the descent and the gap grew steadily, reaching 45 seconds and forcing the chasing group of 11 to face the possibility that they would contest for bronze at best.

As Alberto Bettiol dropped away with cramp, Wout van Aert attacked to try and close the gap; if he had found an ally, perhaps they might have managed it, but no-one would, or potentially could, work with him after the punishing 220km that had preceded, and despite his attempts to request assistance from the others it was to no avail. The gap did drop to 15 seconds, but with less than 10km now remaining, it was too great a challenge.

With 5.8km to go Carapaz kicked out for home, and with McNulty tiring the chasing group scented blood, Woods, Uran, and Gaudu trying to gain some distance on van Aert and the rest. It wasn’t to be. Clear in front, Carapaz crossed the line to make history for Ecuador, and the remaining places would be contested between the remaining group of elite riders.

Adam Yates was first to sprint for the line but once van Aert and Pogacar opened up their sprints there was no doubting where the final two medals were heading. It was breathtakingly close on the line, and it was a short while before van Aert was confirmed as having snatched second, taking a well-deserved silver for his efforts, almost a lone rider given how much assistance he was afforded by the rest. Pogacar was gracious in third place, taking the prize for one of the best team efforts of the day.

Whilst the length and difficulty of the mens’ course naturally thinned out the peloton, once the final climb was done, the women’s peloton which had been reduced came back together for a while. As Kiesenhofer attacked solo from front,  van Vleuten continued to give chase behind, yet the gap held steady.

With 30km to go, a dangerous group of four chasers broke clear: Lotte Kopecky (BEL), Kasia Niewiadoma (POL), Christine Majerus (LUX) and Olga Zabelinskaya (UZB). However they weren’t able to maintain their advantage and with just over 25.8km remaining, the chasers were swept back into the peloton, with USA’s Chloe Dygert and Marianne Vos leading the charge. Moments later Van Vleuten’s solo attack came to an end as she too was reabsorbed into the main group, which was once again spread out across the road as the pace began to wind up heading toward the Fuji International Speedway where the race would conclude with 1.5 laps of the track.

Labous of France was next to give chase, but after spirited effort she was hunted down, and with just under 5km to go, Plichta and Shapira, the other two remaining members of the day’s break, were finally reeled back in.

It was too late for them to catch Kiesenhofer however. As the first rider to attack the race, Anna Kiesenhofer, a rider without an active professional contract, was the first to cross the line, in an incredible, unexpected victory that encapsulated everything the Olympics means to so many: triumph against the odds; the stuff that dreams are made of.

Behind, van Vleuten broke away again to ride for silver, and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini raced to third. The aftermath was somewhat soured as it transpired that Annemiek van Vleuten thought she had won the race; the lack of race radio and alleged poor communication of time gaps later blamed by the Dutch team for their misunderstanding. They had seen Plichta and Shapira come back but had miscounted and believed they had the entire break accounted for. It was a bitter pill to swallow for van Vleuten following her horror crash at the last Olympics, but despite the debates that raged across social media following the race, nothing could take away the standout performance of Anna Kiesenhofer to take gold.

The Verdict

MEN’S ROAD RACE:

A well-planned route and difficult conditions made for an exciting race and the elite group that fought for the medals produced a worthy and popular winner, as well as emphasizing the quality of the other medal winners, particularly Wout van Aert who fought alone for the final section of the race.

GOLD: Richard Carapaz (ECU)

SILVER: Wout van Aert (BEL)

BRONZE: Tadej Pogacar (SLO)

MVP: Jan Tratnik

Team Combativity Award: Italy

WOMEN’S ROAD RACE

Whilst the talking points at the end of the race focused on the lack of race radio and poor communication of time gaps, the perceived failings of the Netherlands and the disappointment of van Vleuten, the incredible performance of Anna Kiesenhofer epitomises the Olympics – the underdog spirit, the willingness to put everything on the line even though the odds may be against you. This one will be remembered for a long time and will hopefully put Kiesenhofer in line for a professional contract

GOLD: Anna Kiesenholfer (AUT)

SILVER: Annemiek van Vleuten (NED)

BRONZE: Elisa Longo Borghini (ITA)

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write.bike.repeat‘s Olympic Dispatches aims to cover all cycle sport disciplines (with varying degrees of knowledge and experience) throughout Tokyo 2020. Join me here, or over on Twitter @writebikerepeat, to talk about the action, and check back often for new content – sign up below if you’d like to receive notifications about new posts when they drop!

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