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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

Preview for the Men's Olympic Road Race

Greg Van Avermaet is the current reigning Olympic road race champion from when he won out of a breakaway at Rio in 2016. © Graham Watson

The Tokyo Olympics are set to be a strange affair. The majority of events will take place in empty indoor sporting arenas, although both the men’s and women’s road races will be the exception. The men’s course is an exciting prospect and is a well thought out parcours that features a lot of mountainous terrain through rural Japan. The eye catching features are Mount Fuji, along with several other passes including the much talked about Mikuni Pass along the 234 km route.

Many riders that recently raced the Tour de France will be present including Tadej Pogaĉar, Richard Carapaz and Wout van Aert. Along with those three, other big names will be there including Simon and Adam Yates, Remco Evenepoel and Vincenzo Nibali.

The Route

Route profile. © IOC

At 234km long and with nearly 5,000 metres of climbing on the menu, the race is likely to be a tactical affair. The Mikuni Pass could make the difference before the riders hit the finish on the Fuji international speedway course after a descent from the Kagosaka pass.

The first 70km out of Tokyo features long, rolling terrain heading towards the start of the first of five major climbs that the riders will take on. The Doshi road is a long, gradual climb leading to the Yamabushi tunnel often on wide and clear roads. As the road gets higher, there are some steep sections, and the last part of the climb is around 5.9km in length with an average gradient of 5.7% and the peloton will reach the summit after 80km of racing.

There is a short descent off of the Doshi road, before some respite from the climbing around the picturesque Yamanakako Lake and then the first of two ascents of the Kagosaka Pass 20km later. Then a long descent down will follow and a chance for a breather as the race passes tea plantations and other beautiful Japanese countryside.

Up next is the climb on Mount Fuji. The lower slopes that the riders will tackle are 15km long at an average gradient of 6%. At this point, there will still be a long way to go before the finish so a big move here is unlikely to stick. The descent off Mount Fuji will be fast and tricky if it rains, and any riders in a breakaway will need to be on their guard to avoid any slip ups here.

Then comes the Fuji speedway circuit for a 1.5km loop round the finish line on undulating terrain and then the riders will hit the foreboding Mikuni Pass, which will be crunch time for those thinking of the gold medal.

The Mikuni Pass is 5km in length at a nasty average gradient of 11.5% which is certainly not what you will want after a long day in the saddle. Towards the summit of the climb the gradient ramps up to 12%, with a horrible section at 17%. Painful indeed!

Mikuni Pass is still a good distance from the finish, however it is steep and long enough to make a difference. After Mikuni there is a brief descent before the second ascent of Kagosaka and from the top, its 21.5km to the finish. The finish is a 6.5km lap of the speedway circuit, meaning that it’s suited to a climber who can also pack a fast finish from a group. Tadej Pogaĉar anyone?

Contenders for the Medals

Adam Yates has indicated that along with the Vuelta, the Olympic Road race is a big target for him. © Getty Images Sport

Both of the Yates twins are in the Great Britain team, although after Simon Yates crashed out of the Tour de France, Adam is the likely candidate for a place on the podium. Yates hasn’t raced in a few months, since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, although displayed outstanding early season form winning Volta a Catalunya in the process. Adam Yates and Ineos Grenadiers have also indicated that his main aim for the season is the Vuelta. Given that the Vuelta is fast-approaching, he must be in form and given his climbing ability is a strong pick for a medal.

Wout van Aert is the outright favourite and has the form after his superb Tour de France. © Getty Images Sport

A few months ago you’d have been well within your rights to argue that this course wouldn’t favour a rider like Van Aert. However, post Tour de France it’s very difficult to bet against the current Belgian national champion. Van Aert showed the form of his life at the Tour and made it hard to pigeon hole him as a rider by winning the Mont Ventoux stage. He also took stage wins in a time trial and on the final stage into Paris, so will be brimming with confidence.

Although no matter how well he was climbing in France, Mikuni Pass is a different prospect to Ventoux, particularly when you consider potential fatigue left over from the Tour. Van Aert’s rivals will know this, and also that if he is still present in the lead group after Mikuni then he will be very tough to beat. Van Aert’s Belgian team-mate, Remco Evenepoel, could come into play here if Van Aert is distanced at this point.

Tadej Pogaĉar once again proved that he is in a class of his own as a climber, winning back to back summit finishes on the way to Tour de France victory this year. © Getty Images Sport

It would be fair to say that Tadej Pogaĉar has nothing left to prove this season. He’s already won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and successfully defended his Tour de France title by taking a second consecutive victory. There will be questions around how Pogaĉar is feeling, including potential fatigue from the Tour. He will have flown out to Tokyo later than some of the other contenders here and because of this jetlag could come into play although he still is very much a favourite for the race.

The climbing on the course will suit him but there have been rumours that he struggles in sweltering conditions and the humidity will be high here. Pogaĉar is capable of a fast-finish if he is in a select group at the end, but his team may be riding for Primo Rogliĉ instead.

Primo Rogliĉ abandoned the Tour de France due to injuries sustained in a crash. Although that could ultimately work in his favour in Tokyo. © Getty images Sport

Although given the circumstances at the time it was a shame to see Rogliĉ forced out of the Tour de France early, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the current Vuelta champion. He is now said to be fully recovered from his injuries from the Tour and this means he has had longer to recover and prepare for the Olympics compared to other contenders.

Slovenia will head to Tokyo with an exceptionally strong team and it’s highly likely Rogliĉ will be the leader on the road. He has the strength and endurance to hold onto a high pace in any select group, and is a strong enough climber to even push on the Mikuni Pass if the opportunity arises but there will still be some distance to go. If Rogliĉ gets over Mikuni Pass in a final group then he could use the second ascent of Kagosaka to capitalise on the tired legs of his rivals and to make a race winning attack. Failing that, Rogliĉ packs a strong final sprint as he has repeatedly shown at the Vuelta and when he took victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2020.

Outside bets

Giulio Ciccone was extremely impressive at the Giro in May. With all eyes on the likes of Van Aert in Tokyo, then the Italian could pull of a surprise. © Cor Vos

Giulio Ciccone had a fantastic start to the Giro in May, and really excelled on several difficult mountain and hilly stages. Not only that but he goes well when the weather gets bad as it often did in Italy in May. Also, Italy head to Tokyo with an exceptionally strong team for the road race including Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali is unlikely to contest for a medal here, but Italy have riders astute enough to protect Ciccone until the Mikuni Pass where they can let him go out on the attack. Ciccone also has the power and shape to sustain any attack he makes over the Kagosaka Pass and onto the finishing circuit.

2019 Tour of Flanders winner, Alberto Bettiol, is another rider who could fly low under the radar and use it to his advantage.

Ciccone’s Italian teammate, Alberto Bettiol, is another outside bet for a medal in a strong Italian team. Whilst the overall favourites all watched each other at the 2019 Tour of Flanders, Bettiol was able to launch a violent attack from the group to fly away to victory and since then he has begun to make quite a name for himself. Whilst the route favours an out and out climber, Bettiol could sit on to a group of climbers and, like Wout van Aert, beat them comfortably in a sprint.

Mike Woods is an exceptional climber and rode well at the Tour de France. The Canadian will be relishing the opportunity to challenge on the road race course. © Getty Images Sport

Mike Woods has long set out this race as a big target and challenged for the King of the Mountains competition at this year’s Tour de France. Woods abandoned the Tour early to fully maximise his recovery for Tokyo and is the type of rider who will excel on the mountainous course.

The Canadian rode in some big breakaways in the rain at the Tour and will have circled the Mikuni Pass as a place for a big attack. Woods will be wary of faster finishers than him, and will need to drop the stronger, rouleur type riders ahead of any potential sprint for a medal.

Richard Carapaz finished third at the Tour de France and won the Tour de Suisse 2021. © Tim De Waele/ Getty Images Sport

Richard Carapaz had a strong Tour de France but was beaten by a phenomenal Tadej Pogaĉar. The course suits him perfectly, and he will relish the climbing on offer including the Mikuni Pass. Carapaz copes well with hot and humid conditions and is likely to feel comfortable throughout, although Ecuador’s small team for the road race could work against him. That being said, Carapaz can’t be ruled out for a medal and if he gets a gap whilst other riders watch each other, then he will be hard to pull back. He’s ranked here as an outside bet purely due to not having the strength in depth in his team like the Italians and Belgians.

The field is full of other potential medal contenders including the likes of João Almeida, Dan Martin, Sergio Higuita, Patrick Konrad and Gino Mäder, and all of this combined promises to make it an exciting and open race.

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