TOKYO OLYMPICS – A TOUR DE FRANCE REDUX

RBA/AFP

Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz won Olympic gold in the men’s cycling road race on Saturday, timing to perfection a tactical, final descent after a tough 234-kilometre course worthy of a mountain stage of the Grand Tour. It was only Ecuador’s second-ever gold at the Olympics after that of Jefferson Perez in the 50km race walk in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar, bidding to become the first cyclist to win the road race in the same year as the Tour de France, had to settle for bronze in a photo finish with Belgium’s silver medallist Wout van Aert.

“It’s an incredible moment for me,” said 28-year-old Carapaz. “You always have to believe. I have worked so hard to be here and it’s a huge moment for me. “I can only say thank you to them (the Ecuadoran people) for the support
and, honestly, for giving us such a big push.”

Van Aert said his silver was “beautiful”, but acknowledged that the peloton had been well and truly outgunned by Carapaz. “We knew beforehand it was going to be difficult,” he said. “Carapaz stayed ahead very well. We knew he would be very, very strong, and he deserved the win.”

The star-studded peloton rolled out of Tokyo’s Musashinonomori Park with the unusual sight — for these pandemic-delayed Games — of tens of thousands of locals lining the roads, masked and with many holding umbrellas as early
temperatures soared to 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit).

The entire route accumulated a staggering 4,865 metres of climbing — more demanding than the major mountain stages of this year’s 2021 Tour de France in which Carapaz had finished third.

After Friday’s opening ceremony at the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium took place without spectators, it was a welcome sight to see people line the course around Mount Fuji — the highest point in Japan at an altitude of 3,776 metres (12,388 feet).

As the peloton sped out of the greater Tokyo conurbation, lush green forests replacing the concrete jungle, locals waved, cheered and dutifully photo-snapped as if it were a Grand Tour stage in non-coronavirus times. Britain’s Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion who sustained a dislocated shoulder in this year’s edition before miraculously getting back on the saddle and finishing the race, suffered an early crash on Saturday and
eventually withdrew.

IN THE BEGINNING
Nic  Dlamini, who this month became the first black South African to race the Tour de France, led a lead group of five riders up and over the Kagosaka Pass and then dived into a long descent before the climb to Fuji Sanroku. Riders hit speeds of up to 85 kilometres per hour (53 miles per hour) coming down from the second of the three major climbs.
Flashing by the pitlanes of the Fuji International Speedway racing circuit for the first time, the breakaway was finally reeled in with 40km of the race remaining.

It heralded the start of a cat-and-mouse game up to and over the Mikuni Pass, its 10km climb averaging 10.6 percent with some sections exceeding a punishing 20 percent. The peloton was quick to split at the start of the ascent, the Belgians and Slovenians taking up the pace before Pogacar further upped the ante.

It was the first of many surges, before Carapaz and Brandon McNulty bolted, the Ecuadoran former Giro d’Italia winner eventually dropping the American with 6km to race. One-day specialist Van Aert, who finished 19th on the Tour de France, pushed in pursuit, but nothing could stop Team Ineos rider Carapaz, who slapped his handlebars in triumph as he crossed for an impressive solo win in 6hr 05min 26sec at the Fuji circuit.

Defending champion Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium was one of 45 riders from the starting peloton of 130 who failed to finish the gruelling race. But 41-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, appearing in his fifth Olympics, rolled home in 42nd position, more than 10 minutes off Carapaz’s pace.

Photo: Bettini

Richard CarapazTokyo Olympics