We’re set for a strange edition of the Olympic Games. Unlike other sports confined to empty arenas the men’s road race is this Saturday will showcase plenty of the best of rural Japan with a mountain course featuring Mount Fuji.
Familiar names from the Tour de France like Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Richard Carapaz take on others take on Remco Evenepoel, João Almeida, the Yates brothers and more.
The Course: 234km and over 4,500m of vertical gain with two set piece climbs before a flat finish on the Fuji speedway motorsport circuit. It’s almost all on big wide roads but alas much of the route is closed off to locals although this was in the plans long before today’s pandemic appeared.
The start is in Tokyo, just. By some measures Tokyo is the world’s largest city and while the start is 30km away from the city centre it’s still Tokyo, albeit suburban “bed town“. After an 8km neutralised section the Koremasa bridge over the Tama river is KM0. Instead of going straight to the countryside it lingers, twisting around residential roads of the Tama hills and then it’s out past the urban sprawl of baseball fields and golf driving ranges towards Sagamihara with several short climbs.
The Yamabushi pass, labelled as Dōshi road, is for most of the time a gradual ascent on a wide road but on the way to Dōshi village there are sections steep enough to change chainrings. After the village, things get more Alpine in feel. It’s scenic but often lined parts with waffle-like concrete lattices that reflect back the heat. The final 5km are in woodland at 6% with a hairpin just before the top and the pass is via a flat tunnel.
There’s only a short descent and moments later Mount Fuji looms into view and it’s around the shores of Lake Yamanaka and take the gentle Kagosaka pass, just 2.3km at 5% to the top. There’s a long descent down past tea plantations and wasabi farms, it’s a chance to cool down and all on a wide road.
Fuji Sanroku is the big climb of the day, literally “the foothill of Fuji” and a chance to scale the lower slopes of Japan’s most famous, and tallest, mountain. It’s 14km with an average of 6% but more often 8-10%. The upper two thirds are normally a toll-road for motorists and cyclists are banned, it is a wide road you can drive a bus up and if there are hairpins, they are gradual. It’s followed by a fast descent with a few tight corners and on grippy Japanese tarmac if it’s dry but if wet then it’s tricky and there’s a chance of rain.
It’s over the Fuji speedway motor racing circuit. Here there’s one lap involving a drag of a climb before crossing the flat pits and finish line and then it’s out for a tricky loop of the TT course in the nearby hills before another lap of the motor racing circuit and then it’s out of the compound for the decisive climb.
Mikuni mountain is the key point on the men’s course. It is 6.75km long and averages 10.5% and because of a gentle start it’s often 12% or more along the way, all on preheated south-facing tarmac. You might see talk online of 20% but it’s never that steep, but there are sustained sections at 14-16%. Any climbers wanting to win the race need a fast pace here to crack rivals and then to attack so they can force a split and keep any heavier, faster sprinting riders out of the picture. From the pass over the top there is still 34km to go.
Over the top and there’s only a short descent back to Lake Yamanaka and a rush around the lake to the gentle Kagosaka Pass again with 23km remaining. A descent on roads where it’s hard to chase and it’s back to the Fuji circuit with a lap which starts with a climb and ends with a long flat finishing straight.
The Contenders: it’s the Olympics so we have national teams and they’re small, the best nations can field a maximum of five riders. This matters because even the strongest squads will be lucky to have three riders in the final hour. Just 130 riders start which is small for an international race, and while it’s the Olympic spirit to have riders from, say, Panama, Burkina Faso and Greece taking part, they’ll be taking part in the start rather than the finish; anyone more than 12 minutes behind the peloton will be asked to quit. It should make for an interesting race with different tactics than usual although look out for team mates on pro teams and any alliances. Then add in questions about form, with Tour de France finishers, some who will be flying and others in a catabolic catastrophe going up against fresher riders who haven’t raced for weeks and are unsure about their form…. then layer on a 12 hour flight, severe jetlag and the heat.
A brooding, looming presence over the race and not, it’s not Mount Fuji but Wout van Aert (Belgium). Second in the worlds last year, he’s just come off the Tour de France with three stage wins and now Mikuni is his new Ventoux. Get over this pass with or within reach of the leaders and he’s going to be very difficult to beat. Everybody knows this and rival teams will set to work on Fuji to soften him up and however well he was climbing in the Tour, Mikuni is a big ask. Even if he can limit the damage over the top, rivals left with him will expect him to lead the chase. Remco Evenepoel is also an obvious contender who can attack while van Aert sits tight, he might not have the sprint – clinical finishing is something he needs to improve – but if he gets a gap he’s gone.
Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) is the obvious pick, the Tour de France winner finds a mountainous course to suit and he’s got a decent sprint out of a small group. He may not like the heat of this course, some say heatwaves are his weak spot and we’ll test this hypothesis here but this is also an issue for his team, Slovenia aren’t going to have helpers all around the course to hand up ice packs. Primož Roglič is an interesting team mate too, form unknown but said to be over his injuries.
Alexey Lutsenko (Kazakhstan) is an archetypal rider for a course like this, strong on the climbs, powerful on the flat and he can sprint well out of a small group. Seventh in the Tour de France almost by stealth, he only had one top-10 all month but is arguably much better at one day races. Vadim Pronskiy is making a name as a good climber too.
Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) has all the ingredients to win here, he copes well with the heat, climbs well, the form is there and even trains at home on a volcano so maybe Fuji will feel familiar. He’s at his most dangerous if he can get a gap while others look at each other to chase.
Form is unknown but João Almeida (Portugal) is a pick on reputation alone, the same age as Pogačar and often rivals in the junior and early U23 days and more relevant he was climbing with the best in Giro on the longer ascents.
Bauke Mollema (Netherlands) is the all or nothing candidate who will wait for the field to be reduced and then hit them with an attack when they least expect it and quickly build up a lead to make all the others doubt. Wilco Kelderman and Dylan van Baarle bring more options while Tom Dumoulin is a wildcard, form unknown.
Italy have a very strong team but lack a boss to finish the job. Gianni Moscon can climb and sprint well but Mikuni could be too much while Giulio Ciccone is form unknown. Vincenzo Nibali is not going to find descents to exploit and isn’t climbing as fast any more, his crash in Rio must haunt him as an opportunity lost. Alberto Bettiol is a dark horse contender, he can handle 20 minute climbs when he’s at his best.
Simon Yates must be the best pick for Britain on paper but crashed out of the Tour de France, although without serious injury but is a harder pick now. Adam Yates is form unknown but if he’s aiming for the Vuelta as well must be in shape and is ideal for a course like this while Geraint Thomas hauled himself around France and could still be a contender now if he’s recovered.
Spain bring Alejandro Valverde who would have been ideal for this course a decade ago but doesn’t win so much now. Still with the Tour in his legs he’s a wily rider to watch while Omar Fraile is an outsider if he can make it to the finish contention.
Colombia have several outsiders. Sergio Higuita is handy in a group although would prefer uphill finish. Rigoberto Uràn is partly famous for losing the sprint in London but otherwise handy in group while Esteban Chaves had a discreet tour but often pops up when you least expect it.
The French team is missing their three best riders in Bardet, Pinot and Alaphilippe leaving David Gaudu and Guillaume Martin as outsiders for the win. Gaudu packs a decent sprint for someone with but a medal is a big ask, especially in the heat.
A year ago Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) looked like a hot tip for the Olympics but he’s had a rotten year so far, still don’t count him out but Gino Mäder is having a better season and a stronger climber anyway.
Michael Woods (Canada) has made this race a big target. A medal winner in the Innsbruck worlds, he used the final steep climb as a launchpad but how to win here? A big move on Mikuni pass with other climbers as allies and won’t have to worry about difficult descents but a sprint in a group is a tough one. George Bennett (New Zealand) got frozen out of the Giro and could find the heat better but the course but like Woods, how to win on a flat finish?
Dan Martin (Ireland) had great legs on Luz Ardiden and is clever in one day races too while Eddie Dunbar gets a chance to race for himself too. Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) can sprint well from a small group and has a chance to race for himself but can he cope with Mikuni? Max Schachmann (Germany) is similar, if he can get to the finish then he’s very good for a sprint. Pavel Sivakov (Russia) has gone under the radar this season after his Giro crash but can feature, he can climb and roll well. Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) should be a good pick but had an invisible Tour, blaming a Covid vaccine but saying this meant he never raced as deep so with some recovery he could do well, he’s become a better one day rider than stage racer.
|Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz|
|Wout van Aert, João Almeida|
|Remco Evenepoel, Max Schachmann, Adam Yates|
|Mollema, Fuglsang, Woods, Lutsenko, Roglič|
|D Martin, Uràn, Valverde, S Yates, Higuita, Ciccone, Konrad, Bettiol, Moscon|
Weather (updated): a mix of clouds and sunshine for the start, 31°C and medium humidity but the clouds should by midday. Towards the finish there’s a small chance of rain again.
TV: there’s coverage from 10.50am – 6.15pm JST NHK Plus and Gorin, full live coverage and broadcasters around the world should have the video, if it’s not on your TV then visit your broadcaster’s website instead.
The race starts at 11:00am JST and is due to finish around 5.30pm. The Fuji climb is forecast to start soon after 2.00pm, Mikuni pass around 4.15pm.
For European readers subtract 7 hours, UK 8, for the US 13 which makes the finish at around 10.30am CEST in Europe, 9.30am BST in the UK and 4.30 EST for those in the US on the east coast.
- Yamabushi pass gets its name from the ascetic mountain priests and hermits of Japan. yama means mountain, bushi to prostrate oneself, it’s for those who bow before the mountains. There’s a following today in Japan, lay practitioners dress in the white robes and have an intense and comprehensive appreciation of the mountains
- Lake Yamanaka, yamanakako, means “in the middle of the mountains”, an obvious name, think “Rocky Mountains” and so on
- Kagosaka pass probably means “basket hill” although the origin of kago is disputed. What’s more likely is this was the location for one of Hokusai’s 36 views of Fuji, an album of prints from the 19th century that went global, inspiring impressionist painters in Europe soon after
- Mikuni pass takes its name from nearby Mikuniyama, the three (mi) provinces (kuni) mountain (yama) as its summit is the point where the three prefectures of Shizuoka, Yamanashi and Kanagawa meet.