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Tokyo Olympics Road Race: Richard Carapaz wins gold as GB riders miss out

·5-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

It was the heavyweight contest we had all expected. Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar, dominant winner of a second straight Tour de France, duking it out with cycling’s great all-rounder, Wout van Aert of Belgium, who won mountain, time trial and sprint stages across the course of the sport’s most famous race.

What we did not expect, was that it would be the race for silver. By the time the duo crossed the line, Van Aert a fraction ahead and just about the least exhausted of a small, spent chasing pack, Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz was already celebrating gold.

The 2019 Giro d’Italia winner had been brave in committing to a late attack and had the guts and the legs to hold off the planet’s greatest riders at the end of a savage, gripping contest that spanned 234 mountainous kilometres and arguably the toughest course ever seen at the Olympic Games.

Great Britain arrived with a quartet that, between them, brought the experience of winning all three of the sport’s Grand Tours but it was the one without such a marquee success on his CV, Adam Yates, who carried the flag deepest, finishing ninth having been right there in the mix for the minor medals before being out-kicked.

Geraint Thomas in particular had shown nothing like his Tour de France-wining level of form of late. The hope was that the return to Olympic competition might spark an upturn in fortunes for an athlete who won gold on the track in 2008 and 2012, but his day soon went the same way it had on the roads of Rio five years ago, when he came off his bike late on while in medal contention.

A much earlier crash here - in which teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart was also left chewing tarmac - did not even offer the solace of a swift exit, the Welshman battling on ragged and bruised, until his race ended in the relative comfort - but bitter disappointment - of the pit lane at the Fuji International Speedway with more than 50km to go.

The route through Musashino Forest towards the racetrack was - for those watching, rather than churning through 33-degree heat and stifling humidity - typically idyllic. These races so often provide the host nation with the perfect chance to show off the best of their country to a global audience, but never before has one also offered such a rare opportunity for its people see the Games for themselves.

While viewers in Britain were waking up, turning on the telly and peeking out from under the covers to see glorious shots of Mount Fuji performing a similar ritual beneath the clouds, Japanese supporters were lining the roads to watch an early breakaway scamper by and then, rather more leisurely, the peloton roll through, Belgian blue and Slovenian green for the most part leading the way.

Up ahead, 11,000 waited for hours in the baking heat to welcome the riders at the Speedway which, 50 miles south-west of Tokyo, was not at the behest of the city’s ban on spectators.

The 2016 champion Greg Van Avermaet, his role recast as a grafter for Belgium’s younger talents Van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, had done much of the selfless early work and bowed out of his title defence as things heated up at the foot of the mountain with 100km to go, before Slovakia’s Jan Tratnik, fulfilling a similar duty in aid of Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, took up the mantle and seemed to have buried himself in reeling in the initial breakaway, only to pop up time and again to nip in the bud the aspirations of more dissenters.

In fact, the first major move which he did not pour cold water on came from Pogacar himself as the Yellow Jersey winner sprang off the front on the devilish climb at Mikuni Pass. The big question over Pogacar was how he would back up, having clinched a second successive Tour only six days ago, but so fresh had the 22-year-old looked when breezing into Paris that you fancied he might’ve pedalled much of the way to Tokyo without serious exertion.

It says much about his ease on a bike that, with a bit of jet lag throw in, a few days sat on aeroplanes and in hotel rooms almost seemed more of a concern than an extra week in the saddle. At the same time Roglic, who had been denied Tour victory in dramatic style by his younger teammate a year ago, was slipping back through the field, watching him go with a look of anger, frustration and general despair at the unfairness of life usually found on the face of a man whose packet of crisps have got stuck in a vending machine.

He would not have been alone in presuming that the game was up but others were able to respond. Pogacar was swiftly joined by his UAE Team Emirates teammate Brandon McNulty, with Canada’s Michael Woods on the pair’s heels, while Van Aert, no doubt the man Pogacar was most desperate to shake after watching him outsprint Mark Cavendish on the Champs-Elysées last Sunday, eventually drove a larger group back to the head of the race.

Thoughts that McNulty was happy to let loyalties dictate his plans were soon dispelled, though, as the American attacked again, this time with Carapaz for company. The pair established a lead that was at one stage as large as 51 seconds and looked to have silver and gold between them.

But as the superhuman Van Aert singlehandedly dragged the few still clinging on back within sight of the leaders, Carapaz knew what had to be done. He ruthlessly surged again leaving McNulty, Van Aert, Pogacar and the rest. By the time they saw him again, they were looking at the Olympic champion.

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