Tokyo 2020 - Men’s Olympic Road Race 2021: Can Wout van Aert stop Tadej Pogacar swapping yellow for gold?
An undulating route that takes in Mount Fuji and the steeper Mukuni Pass has kept the sprinters away from the men’s Olympic road race. The lumpy 234km course should favour the likes of Tadej Pogacar, Wout van Aert, Bauke Mollema or one of the Yateses – but don’t discount an outsider in Japan, or a bit of Primoz Roglic redemption.
Can Tadej Pogacar follow up his success in France?
Two of the first competitions to award medals at the Tokyo Olympics will be the men’s and women’s cycling road races, which take place in the early hours of Saturday 24 July. A course that features three major climbs – including the iconic Mount Fuji – will give the climbers and all-rounders a chance to strike gold and follow in the footsteps of Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and the Netherlands’ Anna van der Breggen from Rio.
With the Tour de France only just finishing, it’s a rather tight turnaround for the likes of Tadej Pogacar, Wout van Aert, David Gaudu and all the other riders who made it to Paris last Sunday – especially given the long journey and the additional stresses surrounding the ongoing pandemic.
Starting in Musashinonomori Park to the west of Tokyo and ending 234km later at the Fuji International Speedway, the route features five classified climbs for a total of 4,865 metres of climbing.
After a flat opening 40km, the road starts to head uphill on the gentle but long ascent to Doushi Road via the Yamabushi tunnel (the actual climb is 5.9km at 5.7%). A short descent after the summit is followed by a 15km plateau which passes the picture-postcard Yamanakoko Lake before the first of two ascents of the punchy Kagosaka Pass. This is followed by the major test of the day, the climb to Fuji Sanroku (15km at 5.8%) and the highest point of the race at 1451m. This plays out on the so-called Mount Fuji Circuit section of the race.
Set against the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped volcanic “Fuji-san” peak, the 13km descent is followed by one and a half circuits of the undulating Fuji Speedway Loop prior to most difficult uphill test of the race: the Mikuni Pass. The first part of a double-header, the 5km climb has a brutish average gradient of 11.5% with a maximum tilt of 17% near the summit.
A second ascent of the Kagosaka Pass peaks with 21.5km remaining and is followed by a zippy descent ahead of the finish, which comes after a final lumpy 6.5km lap of the Speedway Circuit.
Given the run-in, it’s a route which will not only suit climbers but puncheurs who can get over the peaks and then power to the line. It’s certainly more selective than the Rio route which resulted in a gold medal for a fast finisher who could climb – rather than a climber who can finish fast.
The women’s race is almost 100km shorter and includes neither the two closing climbs nor the Fuji Sanroku climb. As such, the route is identical to the men’s until the Doushi Road and Kagosaka Pass are completed, after which the riders tackle a rolling 40km to the finish. Despite bypassing Mount Fuji, the 137km route features 2,692m of climbing.
Who’s going for gold?
It remains to be seen if those who come to the Olympics off the back of the Tour are at a disadvantage or not. You sense that some riders may be able to continue their peak (such as Tadej Pogacar) while others could be on the wane or recovering from a fall (such as Primoz Roglic). The Slovenian duo are both among the favourites – at least, on origami paper – but part of a four-man team that could fold in the face of six countries with a full quota of five riders.
Along with Pogacar – who was peerless in his pursuit of the yellow jersey in France – other riders hoping to take their Tour form to Tokyo include Belgium’s Wout van Aert, third-place Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, and the French climber David Gaudu, who put in a solid showing in the Pyrenees in the final week.
ANDORRE-LA-VIEILLE, ANDORRA - JULY 11: Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo-Visma & Michael Matthews of Australia and Team BikeExchange in breakaway during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 15 a 191,3km stage from Céret to Andorre-la-Vieille / @LeTo
Image credit: Getty Images
Having proved himself over the mountains during the Tour – not least with the double ascent of Mont Ventoux – Van Aert is just the kind of rider who could win in Tokyo, provided he can negotiate those double-digit ramps of the Mikuni Pass. The Belgian champion has a strong five-man team that also includes defending champion Greg van Avermaet, youngster Remco Evenepoel, and the versatile duo of Tiesj Benoot and Mauri Vansevenant.
Colombia, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain also have five-man teams, with Gaudu, Bauke Mollema and Alejandro Valverde in possession with the right tools in their locker, plus looking in reasonably good nick. You do fear for the Colombians, however, with Señors Quintana, Uran, Higuita and Chaves all tailing off in the Tour. Perhaps Dani Martinez is their man?
The French don’t have Julian Alaphilippe – who will focus on the defence of his world title in Flanders – but Guillaume Martin could dovetail nicely with Gaudu. Italy are an unknown: Vincenzo Nibali looked a shadow of himself in the Tour, while Signori Caruso, Moscon, Bettiol and Ciccone have only really ridden the Settimana Ciclistica Italiana since the Giro.
Mollema will co-lead the Dutch with Wilco Kelderman, who finished fifth in France, plus Tom Dumoulin, who is still in that zone of unknown following a sabbatical. Dylan van Baarle is a strong domestique but Yoeri Havik has only nine race days in his legs all season.
Does old boy Valverde have one major win still inside him? This course would have suited him well in his pomp. It’s not too dissimilar from the Andorra stage in the Tour, where he came second, two placed ahead of Ion Izagirre, who is also part of the Spanish team alongside brother Gorka, Omar Fraile and Jesus Herrada.
Alejandro Valverde of Spain Celebration / Romain Bardet of France / Michael Woods of Canada during the Men Elite Road Race a 258,5km race from Kufstein to Innsbruck 582m at the 91st UCI Road World Championships 2018
Image credit: Getty Images
British hopes reside with the Adam and Simon Yates, with Ineos Grenadiers duo Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas in support. Simon crashed out of the Tour while Adam hasn’t turned a competitive pedal since Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It’s hard seeing any of these four riders adding to Team GB’s goldrush. A medal of any colour would be a miracle.
Marc Hirschi or Gino Mader could be dark horses for Switzerland, ditto Max Schachmann for Germany, Michael Woods for Canada and Rafal Majka for Poland. Majka did a sterling job as trade teammate Pogacar’s last man in the mountains during the Tour, and could enter the race with strong legs and an able lieutenant in Michal Kwiatkowski (himself a good outside bet).
For Pogacar, it all depends how he’s feeling and where his motivation lies so soon after winning a second Tour. He’s also fiercely loyal and respectful of his compatriot Primoz Roglic, whom he commemorated by holding up his race number in the final ride into Paris last Sunday. Can Roglic do a Lazarus and be in competitive shape given the extend of his injuries in France? It’s unlikely. But the reason he left the Tour early was to focus on his recovery for Tokyo, so he shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.
Both part of three-man teams, Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Lutsenko are good outsiders. Finally, there’s the riders from small two-man or one-man teams who could either form alliances with trade teammates or simply ride the coattails of their colleagues: New Zealand’s George Bennett, Portugal’s Joao Almeida, Costa Rica’s Andrey Amador and Ecuador’s Carapaz are all worth watching.
But that man Van Aert, fresh from winning three stages at the Tour across three different disciplines, and with the tyro Evenepoel in support – perhaps even as a foil – is a mouth-watering prospect. Belgium should be among the medals.
For the women’s race, it’s hard to look beyond a Dutch team that boasts defending champion Anna van der Breggen, her fellow climbing super star Annemiek van Vleuten, the dependable veteran Marianne Vos, and the up-and-coming Demi Vollering.
Olympic Momentum Greg Van Avermaet: Greg van Avermaet won the men's individual road race at Rio 2016 after the lead pack crashed on the final climb of the race.
Image credit: Eurosport
When’s it on?
It’s an early start for those in the UK with the peloton rolling out at the ungodly hour of 3am on Saturday 24 July. The race is expected to last around six and a half hours, with the finish around 9.20am UK time. The women’s race runs from 5am to 9:35am the following day, Sunday 25 July.
Start list (subject to changes)
Countries with five riders Belgium: Greg Van Avermaet, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Tiesj Benoot, Mauri Vansevenant Colombia: Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Higuita, Esteban Chaves, Daniel Felipe Mártinez France: Rémi Cavagna, Benoît Cosnefroy, David Gaudu, Guillaume Martin, Kenny Elissonde Italy: Damiano Caruso, Gianni Moscon, Alberto Bettiol, Giulio Ciccone, Vincenzo Nibali Netherlands: Tom Dumoulin, Bauke Mollema, Wilco Kelderman, Dylan van Baarle, Yoeri Havik Spain: Alejandro Valverde, Gorka Izagirre, Ion Izagirre, Jesús Herrada, Omar Fraile
Countries with four riders Australia: Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge, Lucas Hamilton Denmark: Jakob Fuglsang, Kasper Asgreen, Christopher Juul-Jensen, Michael Valgren Germany: Maximilian Schachmann, Emanuel Buchmann, Nikias Arndt, Simon Geschke Great Britain: Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Simon Yates, Tao Geoghegan Hart Slovenia: Primoz Roglic, Tadej Pogacar, Jan Tratnik, Jan Polanc Switzerland: Marc Hirschi, Stefan Küng, Michael Schär, Gino Mäder
Countries with three riders Austria: Patrick Konrad, Gregor Mühlberger, Hermann Pernsteiner Canada: Michael Woods, Hugo Houle, Guillaume Boivin Czech Republic: Zdenek Stybar, Michal Schlegel, Michael Kurkle Ireland: Daniel Martin, Nicolas Roche, Eddie Dunbar Kazakhstan: Alexey Lutsenko, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Vladim Pronskiy Norway: Andreas Leknessund, Tobias Foss, Markus Hoelgaard Poland: Rafal Majka, Michal Kwiatkowski, Maciej Bodnar Russia: Aleksandr Vlasov, Pavel Sivakov, Ilnur Zakarin South Africa: Ryan Gibbons, Nic Dlamini, Stefan De Bod
Countries with two riders Ecuador: Richard Carapaz, Jhonathan Narváez Eritrea: Merhawi Kuduz, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier Estonia: Tanel Kangert, Peeter Pruus Japan: Yukiya Arashiro, Nariyuki Masuda Latvia: Krists Neilands, Toms Skujins Luxembourg: Kevin Geniets, Michel Ries New Zealand: George Bennett, Patrick Bevin Portugal: João Almeida, Nelson Oliveira Slovakia: Juraj Sagan, Lukás Kubis USA: Brandon McNulty, Lawson Craddock
Countries with one rider Algeria: Azzedine Lagab Argentina: Eduardo Sepúlveda Azerbaijan: Elchin Asadov Belarus: Alexandr Riabushenko Burkina Faso: Paul Daumont Costa Rica: Andrey Amador Croatia: Josip Rumac Greece: Polychronis Tzortzakis Guatemela: [TBC] Hong Kong: Hiu Fung Choi Hungary: Attila Vallter Iran: Saeeid Safarzadeh Lithunia: Evaldas Šiškevičius Mexico: Eder Frayre Morocco: Mohcine El Kouraji Namibia: Tristan de Lange Panama: Christofer Robin Jurado Peru: Royner Navarro Romania: Eduard Grosu Rwanda: Moise Mugisha Ukraine: Anatoliy Budyak Venezuela: Orluis Aular