The final events on the road would see a small but perfectly formed field of 39 men and 25 women take on a long, undulating course against the clock. The distance was 44.2km for the men and 22.1km for the women, taking place over a lap (or two) concluding, as in the road race, on the Fuji International Speedway track. Yet despite the diminutive numbers, the race would be epitomised by stories of redemption: cycling is full of characters, and some of the protagonists were about to take centre stage.
There were some who chose to focus all their energies on the event; undisputed time trial machine and reigning World Champion, Italian Fillippo Ganna began his Olympic campaign on the road before he would double up on the track; Australian Rohan Dennis, too, foregoing his place in the road race too in order to focus on the individual event.
Many of the riders were competing in both road race and time trial though, and some, such as silver medallist Wout van Aert, who worked tirelessly and without assistance just two days previously, would undoubtedly be carrying tired legs coming into the race. In the women’s race, the Dutch pairing of Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen would seek to overturn the relative disappointment of their team performance on the road.
The startlist was curated to maximise excitement, with the favourites going off last. Yet some stories worth telling from the day didn’t revolve around challenging for medals: the first competitor off the runway for the women was Masomah Ali Zada. Originally from Afghanistan, she sought asylum from the political unrest there in 2017 and was able to secure a scholarship to compete in the sport she loved, but was abused for taking part in when she was living at home. She raced for the Olympic Refugee Team and made history in the process as the first female Afghan cyclist to compete in the Games.
The course was challenging, with no flat sections outside of the finishing strait, and with a steep climb around 9km in, the strongest riders were able to make their mark. Of the early starters, two Canadians – Karol-Ann Canuel and Leah Kirchmann – filled the top two places at the early intermediate split.
Present also were two from the break that went on to prove successful for Anna Kiesenhofer in the road race, Anna Plictha and Omar Shapiro, and with all eyes on her, the USA’s Chloe Dygert. A time trial specialist, Dygert won the World Championships in 2019 in Yorkshire, riding what many deemed a perfect race despite horrendous conditions, then she crashed in the 2020 World Championships. Despite only just returning to competition off the back of the injuries she sustained there, Dygert was still one of the hot favourites for the title.
At the business end of the race, Great Britain’s Anna Shackley hit the top of the leaderboard and remained there for all of ten seconds until she was deposed by Canuel and moments later, Australia’s Sarah Gigante stole the top spot. Times aren’t important when it comes to making history though; Masoumah Ali Zada completed her race and it was impossible not to feel her passion as she went on to express her pride at her performance.
It wasn’t just at the finish line that times were steadily improving; out on the course, the intermediate splits were becoming progressively quicker too, and in particular for Annamiek van Vleuten, riding for her second shot at an Olympic medal following her silver in the road race. She caught the USA’s Amber Neben, herself a statistical point of interest as the oldest road cyclist in the OIympic Games at an impressive 46.
The course was fiendishly tricky, appearing to be uphill almost all the way, and while van Vleuten dug in and attacked the climbs, Dygert, complete with her pink shoes and socks, struggled. Grace Brown and Anna van der Breggen made steady progress, but as the kilometres ticked down, van Vleuten’s lead extended, and unless someone had an astonishing second half of the race, it looked increasingly likely she would take the win.
She crossed the line, setting the fastest time comfortably, and her wait began. One by one, the remaining riders on the course came across the line, and, one by one, they failed to best van Vleuten’s time. Switzerland’s Marlen Ruesser came closest, 56 seconds behind to take the silver, and van Vleuten’s Dutch teammate van der Breggen was able to pip Grace Brown by 7 seconds to make it two medals out of three for the Dutch following their disastrous run of luck in the prior days.
For van Vleuten, it was a personal story of redemption, coming back from the horrific injuries she suffered at the last Games in Rio to finally realise her dream of Olympic gold. As the men’s race got underway, she sneaked past the camera, grinning and clutching her gold medal as her countryman Tom Dumoulin warmed up on the rollers in the background: would the Dutch have their day again?
The story of the early part of the race mirrored that of the women, with a Canadian in the lead. Hugo Houle impressed, taking the hotseat after narrowly beating South Africa’s Stefan de Bod.
The first competitor to rise to the challenge was Italian Alberto Bettiol, who set a new fastest intermediate split and continued to look strong throughout. He didn’t appear to be the most aero of time triallists, attacking the course as though it had wronged him, yet he posted the fastest time of the day, unseating Hugo Houle. By contrast, Remco Evenepoel was poetry in motion: smooth, fluid and perfectly aerodynamic. He opened his account with measured conservatism, but buried himself through the last few kilometres to take 35 seconds off of Bettiol’s time and raise the bar. He held the hotseat for only a few minutes, however, as Rigoberto Uran replicated the impressive time trial form he displayed to win the time trial at the Tour du Suisse to steal into first position.
This top three of Uran, Evenepoel and Bettiol would remain in place for a while as rider after rider rolled through, unable to improve upon their times, but at the other end, the big hitters were taking to the roads: time trial specialists Tom Dumoulin, Rohan Dennis and Stefan Kung started consecutively and immediately made in-roads into the time of the current leader, Dumoulin ahead at the first intermediate split.
With Wout van Aert and Fillippo Ganna rolling off of the starting ramp, all the participants were finally out on the course, and the top times were bettered over and over, but it was Slovenian Primoz Roglic who was setting the course alight, with Fillippo Ganna hot on his heels.
It was clear that Dumoulin was on also on fire, scorching through the first lap in absolutely blistering form, over-taking his minute (and a half) man, USA’s Brandon McNulty., himself an excellent time triallist (although having steamed into the lead with Richard Carapaz on the road race, it could be that McNulty was another suffering from heavy legs).
Whilst I may have run out of heat-based imagery, there was no doubt the contest remained spicy, as just ten seconds separated the top ten riders at the first intermediate split. Meanwhile at the halfway mark, Roglic shaved over 8 seconds from Dumoulin’s dominant time, his face set in a mask of pure, single-minded focus, and on the surface at least, not troubled in the slightest by the injuries he sustained at the Tour de France. Kung and van Aert were both still in touch, first one and then the other dropping into fourth spot right behind Rohan Dennis, but subsequently bumped down again as Ganna snatched third spot.
On the second lap, strong performances became even more assured; on the climb, Dennis passed his INEOS teammate Geraint Thomas who was not on his best day, and Roglic overtook Kasper Asgreen. The Dane was briefly able to re-establish his lead on the road, and for a while the two engaged in a back and forth race as Asgreen held out for a few minutes before Roglic passed him again, along with Joao Almeida.
Roglic crossed the finish line in an astonishing time, taking over a minute off of the previous best set by Tom Dumoulin who himself had ridden arguably the ride of his life. Roglic continued over the line at speed, seemingly determined leave nothing to chance.
At the third time check, even Ganna had fallen off the pace, the heat and climbing perhaps troubling him, and at 44 seconds down on Roglic, the writing was on the wall, the outcome all but confirmed. Neither Kung or van Aert could make an impression on the top three, and as Ganna finally approached the finish line, it became clear that neither could he, as a possible medal slipped through his grasp, Rohan Dennis with a solid performance to secure bronze.
Roglic has waited a long time for this success: despite winning the Vuelta in two consecutive years, his loss at the 2020 Tour de France remained unavenged, and he was thwarted in the 2021 edition following a crash that saw him unable to make it past day 9. He suffered during the road race but the time trial course was perfect for him and his focus and determination throughout the race was unerring.
The smiles on the podium said it all; well-deserved success and a celebration to put to rest the struggles of the previous year. Alongside him, his Jumbo Visma teammate Tom Dumoulin, dealing with his own struggles by choosing to step away from the sport earlier this year, and returning in superb form to take a hard fought silver medal.
The road cycling events came and went in a flash, but there was more than enough entertainment to last us for the next three years. As we turn our attention indoors, to the velodrome, the track cyclists have a lot to live up to.