Carapaz launches Tokyo 2020 with a historic bang

Richard Carapaz has made history again. A week after becoming the first Ecuadorian podium finisher of the Tour de France, and a couple of years after winning the Giro d’Italia – an unprecedented feat for an Ecuadorian rider – the climber raised in the Carchi province claimed glory in the men’s road race, the opening cycling event of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Carapaz smiled, winked and grimaced at the cameras in contagious joy as he brought Ecuador their second gold medal in the history of the Olympic Games. Wout van Aert finished second for Belgium as he outsprinted Slovenia’s Tadej Pogačar in the chase group.

The peloton of 129 riders started at 11am local time from Musashinonomori Park without Australia’s Rohan Dennis, who was focusing on the time trial. Germany’s Simon Geschke and Czech Republic’s Michael Schlegel did not take the start after returning positive Covid-19 tests.

The participants had 234 demanding kilometres ahead of them to reach the finish at the Fuji International Speedway. Eight riders went on the move as soon as the flag dropped and quickly opened a significant gap ahead of the route’s main challenges.

Nicholas Dlamini (RSA), Michael Kukrle (CZE), Juraj Sagan (SVK), Polychronis Tzortzakis (GRE), Eduard-Michael Grosu (ROU), Orluis Alberto Aular Sanabria (VEN), Paul Daumont (BUR) and Elchin Asadov (AZE) brought their lead up to over 10 minutes as they hit the first slopes of the long steady climb of Doushi Road.

Slovenia and Belgium drove the peloton in these early stages of the race, with the 2016 Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet pulling the bunch himself on the first climb of the day. The gap increased to 18’45’’ with 170km to go.

Only seven riders remained at the front after Asadov lost contact on a short downhill section. Namibia’s Tristan de Lange set off in pursuit but was caught after 25km of effort, just as Slovenia’s Jan Tratnik increased the pace in the bunch alongside Van Avermaet. Around the same time, Daumont and Grosu were dropped from the front group, whose lead to the bunch reduced to 16’ as the race entered the last 140km.

The intensity steadily increased en route to the second ascent, the Fuji Sanroku climb (14.3km at an average gradient of 6%), on the slopes of Mount Fuji. As the peloton thinned out so did the gap to the front of the race, coming down to 10’25’’ when the leaders still had 100km to go.

With the summit of the Fuji Sanroku climb still 4km away, Van Avermaet was dropped from the bunch after his early work, but Tratnik maintained a strong pace. And Italy’s Giulio Ciccone, following an earlier crash also involving Geraint Thomas (GBR) and Nairo Quintana (COL), turned up the intensity as he took the helm of the bunch near the summit.

Many riders couldn’t keep up with this hard pace on a demanding terrain and with hot and humid conditions. Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, participating in his fifth successive Olympic Games, was among the main dropped contenders as the peloton crested the Fuji Sanroku climb with a gap of 5’.

Juraj Sagan was the first rider across the finish line, as the early attackers rode through the Fuji Speedway before heading to the mighty climb of Mikuni Pass: 6.5km at an average gradient of 10.6%, with sections reaching 20%.

Attacks already flew ahead of the climb, with Dutch and Italian riders showing their willingness to open up the race. Remco Evenepoel was prompt to react for the Belgians but everyone, including the breakaway riders, was caught with 48km remaining.

Evenepoel was soon dropped on the Mikuni Pass climb and it didn’t take much longer before Pogačar launched a strong acceleration. Only Brandon McNulty (USA) and Michael Woods (CAN) followed the recent winner of the Tour de France while Van Aert tried to control the gap.

Carapaz, Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) and Alberto Bettiol (ITA) were the first to join the leading trio, with 35km to go. They were quickly followed by Rigoberto Urán (COL). Van Aert also bridged the gap with David Gaudu (FRA), Bauke Mollema (NED) and Jakob Fuglsang (DEN). Maximilian Schachmann (GER) and Adam Yates (GBR) made it 13 riders at the front on the short following descent, with around 30km to go.

After a series of attacks and countermoves, Carapaz and McNulty crested the final climb of the day, Kagosaka Pass, alone. Their lead was just above 20’’ with just over 20km remaining. The gap had risen to 45’’ when Van Aert powerfully accelerated with 12km to go. His move cut Carapaz and McNulty’s lead to 20’’ heading into the last 10km.

With the chasers moving closer and closer, Carapaz went on his own with 6km to go. And there was no coming back for his rivals, settling for the sprint for silver. Van Aert opened up the final run in to the line and narrowly edged out Pogačar as the duo joined Carapaz on the Olympic podium.