One of the most brutal and compelling Olympic road races in memory ascended Mount Fuji and then erupted into a battle for Olympic gold. A high-quality pack of 11 riders established themselves at the front and then tore lumps out of each other with attack after attack, and it was Richard Carapaz who delivered the killer blow.
It was only the second gold medal in Ecuador’s history. In front of a near full grandstand at the Fuji International Speedway circuit – spectators are allowed at venues outside Tokyo itself – Carapaz approached the finish and glanced over his shoulder to confirm his hard-earned conquest was assured. He swayed over the line, arms swinging, punchdrunk from the exertion.
Half a minute later the chasers sprinted to the line for the final two medals. Belgium’s Wout van Aert rode brilliantly to cling on when the road steepened and earned his reward with silver. Slovenia’s delighted Tadej Pogacar grabbed bronze, six days after winning yellow at the Tour de France. Follow Tokyo Olympics 2021: Latest medals and updates
It was not such a good day for Carapaz’s British Ineos Grenadier teammates. Tao Geoghegan Hart lost control early in the race and went tumbling, and he took Geraint Thomas with him. As the race made its first visit of the day to the speedway track there was the peculiar sight of Thomas abandoning in the track’s pitlane, still feeling the effects of his fall.
“All good with me,” Thomas soon tweeted. “Think I must have done something bad in a previous life. Freak crash, Tao lost his front wheel and decked it in front of me. I had nowhere to go, other than the floor as well.”
Adam Yates came closest to landing a medal for Britain, trying valiantly to sprint for the line in the closing moments, but his surge was quickly caught by Van Aert and the rest and he finished ninth.
The decisive racing had played out much earlier. The 134 riders faced a gruelling day ahead when they set out from Musashinonomori Park on the edge of the capital: 234km, five ascents including the long drag up Mount Fuji in the middle of the race, 4,865m of climbing in all, as well as several circuits of the speedway track which provided the stage for a dramatic finish.
An early break containing Peter Sagan got almost 20 minutes up the road but their advantage was decimated on Fuji. The real action kicked in on the penultimate climb, the Mikuni Pass – only 6km long but averaging more than 10 per cent gradient and kicking up to 20 per cent in places. This was where the road tilted and the sun burned, where unzipped jerseys flapped in the wind, faces grimaced and backsides swayed out of their seats. Pogacar put in the most telling attack and left riders strung out down the mountain trying and failing to cling on.
The American Brandon McNulty caught on to Pogacar’s coattails and gripped tight. The Canadian Michael Woods hung in too. A host of riders valiantly gave chase including Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, Italy’s Alberto Bettiol, Netherlands’ Bauke Mollema, France’s David Gaudu, Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran, Carapaz and Van Aert, all knowing if they lost touch now they were gone.
The one Pogacar most wanted to shake off was Van Aert, whose sprinting prowess meant no one wanted to reach the finish with the Belgian on their wheel. But Van Aert held his nerve brilliantly, showing once again his ability to adapt in the mountains just as he did during the Tour de France when he won on a stage few thought he could containing a double climb of Mont Ventoux.
A series of attacks followed as a lead group sped up and slowed down again, eyeing each other suspiciously. Then one charge finally stuck: an instinctive move around the outside while no one was watching saw McNulty and Carapaz escape together and before anyone could react they were gone, giving everything they had to open a gap.
The rest dallied, each waiting for someone else to put in the hard graft required to catch them. Up ahead Carapaz gave another almighty surge knowing he might come out second best in a straight sprint with the 23-year-old McNulty, and suddenly he was in clear air as the kilometres ticked down. Five, four, three, his lead of 30 seconds or so still intact. Two, then one, and even though he was clearly hurting there was no way he was giving this up now.
Carapaz has a Giro d’Italia on his resume, one of cycling’s three highly prized Grand Tours, but the look on his face suggested this meant everything. He had given everything. Fans several thick lined the home straight and slammed the advertising boards to create a racket, carrying him over the line. Carapaz is only 28 and he will win many more cycling races, but it is hard to imagine how this extraordinary day around Mount Fuji could be anything but the pinnacle.
Top 10 finishers
1. Richard Carapaz (Ecu)
2. Wout van Aert (Bel)
3. Tadej Pogacar (Slo), at same time
4. Bauke Mollema (Ned)
5. Michael Woods (Can)
6. Brandon McNulty (USA)
7. David Gaudu (Fra)
8. Rigoberto Uran (Col)
9. Adam Yates (GBr)
10. Max Schachmann (Ger)
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