Recently-crowned Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar headlines a star-studded peloton for Saturday’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics, a tough 145 mile course worthy of a mountain stage of the Grand Tour. The demanding circuit starts at Tokyo’s Musashinonomori Park and climaxes at the Fuji International Speedway racing circuit, with riders facing five climbs around the iconic Mount Fuji, the highest point in Japan at an altitude of 12,388ft.
The course seems best suited to the peloton’s explosive climbers, with 15,961 feet of elevation gain — more demanding than the major mountain stages of the 2021 Tour de France.
After an almost flat start, the riders will gradually change gear in the 25 miles of ascent leading to Doshi Road. They will continue with the climb of the Kagosaka Pass and then dive into a long descent to Fuji Sanroku (8 miles at 6%).
The peloton will cross the finish line twice then take on the dantesque Mikuni Pass: its 6 mile length has an average grade of 10.6% with sections at more than 20%. Its summit is 18 miles from the finish and while breakaways are expected throughout, guaranteeing to split the pack, there should be no little game of cat-and-mouse on the long descents as the peloton bids to reel in the front riders in what is expected to be very hot and humid conditions.
Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet won gold in Rio in 2016, and he is back as part of a strong Belgian quartet that also includes Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert, winner of the Tour’s final showcase stage on the Champs-Elysees last weekend.
One-day specialist van Aert, who finished 19th overall, emerged from the Tour covered in glory and a burgeoning reputation as a complete rider having won Mont Ventoux, billed as the toughest stage of the race, and a long time-trial run through the Saint-Emilion vineyards as well as the mass bunch sprint in Paris.
“I’ll try to win the gold medal there, but right now I’m overwhelmed with what I’ve done here,” he said in the French capital before his departure for Japan.
Van Aert also warned: “Anyone who can follow Tadej will be close to victory.”
Pogacar, who also won the king-of-the-mountains polka dot jersey on the Tour for the second year running on the back of two impressive mountain pass stage wins, will surely be among the favourites for a podium placing although it is difficult to fathom how much the 22-year-old will have left in the tank after the Tour.
“Tokyo is coming really fast. It’s not so much time to recover, also with the jet lag, and Japan is super hot with a lot of humidity,” said Pogacar.
“I’ll go there for a new experience and with super motivation because it’s the Olympics and it’s only every four — or five — years. I will grab it and try to race for the win.”
The Slovenian will notably be partnered by Primoz Roglic, whom he trumped for Tour victory in 2020 on the final day.
Roglic was an early withdrawal on the Tour this time around, leaving open the question as to whether he will be perfectly primed or badly undercooked for the gruelling one-day test around Mt Fuji.
Van Aert and the Slovenian duo aside, Britain named an experienced foursome featuring 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, Teo Geoghegan Hart, and the Yates brothers, Simon and Adam — all proven competitors.
And the Colombians will also be targeting a podium after naming Sergio Higuita, Rigoberto Uran, Esteban Chaves and Nairo Quintana.
Also among the 130 riders will be veterans Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, 36, who quit the Tour to better prepare for Tokyo, and 41-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, who will appear in his fifth Olympics having made his Games debut back in Athens in 2004.
France are deprived of the discipline’s reigning world champion, Julian Alaphilippe, and Vuelta-bound Romain Bardet, but boast capable climbers Guillaume Martin and David Gaudu, 8th and 11th on the Tour respectively.
RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini