Kagosaka Pass was the smallest marked climb of the day and just enough to launch the winning move as Brandon McNulty and Richard Carapaz managed to break free from a group that had been bossed by Tadej Pogačar and Wout van Aert. This was the moment the men’s Olympic road race in Tokyo was won.
These are difficult Olympics. A portion of the Japanese public doesn’t want them and the portion that does knows it’s not the joyous festival it should have been. Even Emperor Naruhito, who weighs words with the care of a central banker, spoke of “commemorating” the games rather than celebrating them. The road race though is a unique event, it’s the longest for starters but more importantly it’s free and goes to the public. No empty stadiums, instead it went past cheering crowds – including some protests – but the public a mix of who’d been anticipating the day for years and those out doing their Saturday shopping.
A neutralised start through a shrine provided a vivid reminder this was a race in Japan, as did the ensuing procession through the suburbs past giant signs for ramen noodles and sushi rather than pizza or pain although thanks to globalisation old and new there was a Jolly Pasta en route too. Right from the kilometre zéro a breakaway of eight riders went clear and as they posed no threat the peloton behind was left to cruise around the Tama hills. After the Tour de France’s daily ding-dongs to get in the breakaway this felt like a change. Alas the sight of Geraint Thomas crashing was all too familiar too, this brought down by team mate Tao Geoghegan Hart but as ever he was back up and riding.
The sight of Greg Van Avermaet working on the front showed the Belgians wanted to contain things and marked a brutal passing of the baton between generations with the reigning Olympic champion assuming the role of worker. Still the breakaway was well ahead as they climbed the Yamabushi pass, so much they could have stopped for roadside ayu no shioyaki. In fact with 20 minutes there was time to catch the sweetfish, grill it and eat it. But the likes of Nic Dlamini and Juraj Sagan weren’t touring and if the peloton rarely gives a breakaway four minutes these days was this an Olympian mistake by the bunch?
The breakaway began to split at the top of the Yamabushi pass, surprisingly Eduard Grosu, a talented rider at Pro Conti level was being dropped, somewhere inside a red light with a thermometer pictogram was flashing. While the group behind was diminishing, Slovenia’s Jan Tratnik was relentless, a man who, at least when compared to his peers in the peloton, looks like he’d be more at home in a mawashsi than on a mountainous pass. He was imitating the Ineos mountain train all by himself, a ワンマンカ for locals.
The slow burn phase ended on the slopes of Mount Fuji when the Italian team brought fireworks with Giulio Ciccone accelerating and setting a pace that shrank the peloton, riders were being dropped one by one and if some would get back on the descent it was proof they were cooked, notably Alejandro Valverde and home hope Yukiya Arashiro for whom there would be no Bahraini miracle.
There were several moves on and around the Fuji speedway laps. Remco Evenepoel, Vincenzo Nibali and Eddie Dunbar was the most dangerous but nothing could stick. With Mikuni Pass looming it was “use or lose” for some teams and the French and Dutch in particular were using any remaining helpers while they still could.
Belgium set the pace on the lower slopes of Mikuniyama with Wout van Aert towering over the group, it made sense to be at the front but he was trying for a goldilocks pace, not too fast nor too slow. Only Tadej Pogačar wanted his porridge hotter and launched. This wasn’t the stinging attack of the Col de Romme three weeks ago, more a measured change of pace and he was joined by Brandon McNulty and Michael Woods. This trio was promising, a medal for all if they collaborated and McNulty was both a strong rouleur who would help on the descent, plus a workmate of Pogačar.
Only they struggled to pull out a lead, van Aert and then Alberto Bettiol toiled to close the gap. Then Michał Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz made Supermario jumps to hop across. At this point everyone looked on the limit, Bauke Mollema was rocking on his bike as usual only everyone else was in mimicry. Towards the top of Mikunitoge the road flattens out and there was just enough hesitation upfront for van Aert to get back, towing Mollema, Gaudu and Fuglsang across. It looked like it was down 11 riders: Kwiatkowski, Woods, Pogačar, Uràn, Gadu, Carapaz, Mollema, Fuglsang, van Aert, Bettiol and McNulty. Woods was the first to attack, presumably desperate to use what was left of the climb. But van Aert jumped on him and this was the first of the Belgian’s moves, he was closing more gaps than a Tetris player on Level 20. Over the top of the climb Schachmann and Adam Yates just made it across to form a lucky group of 13. Woods was still dangling out in front and van Aert brought him back. Mollema made his move but this was punctual and everyone jumped on his back wheel. Then Schachmann and Kwiatkowski had a quick go. Fuglsang countered but Pogačar in person brought him back.
At the foot of the Kagosaka pass McNulty attacked with exactly 25km to go, diving down the right and Carapaz jumped to the left. Behind, a moment of hesitation as Wout van Aert looked down at the road, Fuglsang sipped on his bidon. Max Schachmann hit the front but unable to drive on, he was like an owl twitching his head backwards to look for help. Down the descent and the American tandem had 40 seconds.
Often at this point the suspense begins to drop, if it was held in a stadium the first fans would start getting out of their seats in order to get an easy exit. We’ve seen it before, the classic game theory stand off: everyone wants to chase, but everyone wants to keep something in reserve so that when things come back together they’re able to benefit which means the group just can’t work. This time it was different, viewers couldn’t leave their seats. There were some lone efforts but amid them van Aert and Pogačar just kept going regardless and the gap was halved to 20 seconds entering the Fuji circuit for the last time.
Perhaps sensing McNulty was weakening and with the chasers closing in to 15 seconds Carapaz struck out solo on the climb in the Fuji Speedway to go clear. He was away, the others could see it on the wide track and the race for the other medals began with marking and attacks. Carapaz took gold, van Aert launched a long sprint and needed the photofinish to be sure of second place with Tadej Pogačar in third.
A superb course with scenery at the start to compensate for the early lack of action, the Dōshi valley put on a show and all that was missing was Mount Fuji which had began the day in sunshine but hid behind the clouds once the race started. The early breakaway wasn’t a threat but when they got almost 20 minutes a frisson of suspense appeared, a shiver on a hot day. The Belgians and Slovenians did much of the grunt work but the Italian team supplied the fireworks on Fuji and the race reached a frenzy on Mikuniyama, a place that in one day has already earned itself a spot in cycling’s history. Yet Mikuni was necessary but not sufficient, it shrank the cast of contenders kept enough suspense to the end. Ordinarily the drama might have gone out from the race but Wout van Aert was relentless, the final half hour was a Toho production, think Yojimbo on wheels.
One day races, even on hard courses, can throw up surprises and in a race watched by millions who don’t usually tune in for Liège or Lombardia a cult win à la Zaugg wouldn’t have been a result for anyone except compatriots of the eventual victor. The men’s road race in the Tokyo Olympics delivered a comforting result rather than a cult cut and all the better for it. Perhaps Van Aert was the strongest and if the race could replayed over and over he’d surely strike gold. But Carapaz hunted down the medal as a reward for his audacity and endurance while van Aert on one side of the podium and Pogačar on the other made for a galactic photo and their medals were satisfying rewards for their efforts.