Pog and Rog united
Slovenia’s golden era of cycling might reach its zenith on Saturday, when the nation’s two stars Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič join forces at the Olympics in an attempt to win gold at the men’s road race
You sometimes get the impression that, as such great friends, the pair regret having to spend so much time racing against each other, so expect them to relish the opportunity to ride together in their national colours this Saturday in Tokyo.
The last time the pair raced together was at last year’s World Championships in Imola, where Pogačar played a support role, launching an early decoy attack and then, upon being caught, marking moves for Roglič (who ultimately finished sixth on the day).
This time, however, the imperious form shown by Pogačar during his triumphant Tour de France defence means that he’s likely to be Slovenia’s leader, and goes into the race as the bookie’s favourite for gold. If he can produce the kind of explosive attacks he regularly made throughout the Tour during the finale in Tokyo, he’ll be very difficult for anyone to match, especially considering just how tough and climber-friendly the parcours is.
And if Roglic has recovered from the injuries that forced him to abandon the Tour, he too could find himself in a winning position if their rivals spend too much time trying to neutralise Pogacar. Other teams might have more strength in depth (the Slovenian duo have just Jan Tratnik and Jan Polanc to support them), but the power of Pogacar and Rorglic alone make Slovenia the team to beat.
Van Aert hopes to continue winning spree for Belgian
Wout van Aert was convinced that the best way to prepare for the Olympics was to ride the Tour de France as hard as possible. His approach certainly meant he improved as the Tour went on, ending with sensational back-to-back stage wins during the final weekend, but whether he’s able to carry that form into Tokyo and remain fresher than those who have taken a lighter approach over the past month we won't find out until Saturday.
In the absence of Julian Alaphilippe (who’s chosen to rest ahead of the defence of his World Championships title) and Mathieu van der Poel (who’s riding the Olympic mountain biking race instead), Van Aert is the top one-day specialist riding the men’s road race, and — as demonstrated so remarkably at the Tour — has the all-round ability that make him a top favourite almost whatever the parcours is. Yet if he could design his own course, it’s unlikely he’d include quite so much climbing, and he faces a big challenge in keeping up with the pure climbers on the key Mikuni climb.
That late flurry at the Tour also means that every other rider will have listed him as a top threat, meaning he’s at risk of being marked out of contention. Thankfully, Belgium also have a certain Remco Evenepoel at their disposal who has, unusually for him, gone under the radar in the build-up to the Olympics while he’s taken time off from racing.
Whether through one of his trademark long-range attacks, or as an inexhaustible domestique to mark moves for him, Evenepoel will surely take some of the pressure off Van Aert, and could even potentially win himself. Together, (and backed up by, among others, defending champion Greg Van Avermaet) they will make a formidable pairing.
The Yates brothers carry British hopes
Reunited for the first time since Adam left BikeExchange for Ineos Grenadiers, the Yates brothers will lead Great Britain in Tokyo with genuine ambitions for gold.
Both riders have throughout their career prioritised stage races and Grand Tours over one-day races, and Adam’s victory at the 2015 Clásica San Sebastián remains the only major Classic victory between them.
But both nevertheless fancy their chances in Tokyo, thanks to a parcours that features climbs both long and steep enough for their familiar explosive punchy attacks to stick. And with Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart, they’ll have strong support in the British team to help them on the climbs and put them in a position to strike for victory.
While there’s no questioning either’s ability to win gold, doubts do hang over their form. Simon had to abandon the Tour de France injured, while Adam’s form is something of an unknown seeing as he hasn’t raced since April.
But if they can arrive at peak condition, Britain is in with a chance of its first men’s road race Olympics gold.
A climber’s parcours
Unusually for a one-day race, the road race in Tokyo doesn’t just include punchy climbs, but also genuine mountains.
The headline climb is of course the infamous Mount Fuji, which the riders will climb the lower slopes of for 15km at around six per cent, but there will still be almost 100km to ride after its crested. Instead, it’s the double-digit gradients of the Mikuni climb, crested just 33km from the finish, that will likely be the decisive point of the race.
Although the top puncheurs are able to produce great power for short periods of time on such steep inclines, they will struggle to sustain their efforts for the 5km duration of this climb, providing the purer climbers a great opportunity to go clear.
Mikuni could be a great springboard for Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) to launch an attack following his podium finish at the Tour de France, while the likes of Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Michael Woods (Canada), and stage winner Patrick Konrad (Austria) will also hope to carry their Tour climbing form into Tokyo.
Similarly in-form Tour stars David Gaudu and Bauke Mollema lead strong looking French and Dutch teams respectively, and the latter will hope his past victory at the comparable Il Lombardia will play in his favour.
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Rio silver medalist Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) had quieter Tours, but the hope is that they’ll peak just in time for the weekend — although their lack of success this season suggests this year’s Olympics might have come too late in their careers for them to be contenders.
And look out also for the other quality climbers like João Almeida (Portugal), Alexander Vlasov (Russia) and George Bennett (New Zealand), whose strategies of skipping the Tour to focus solely on Tokyo might pay off.
Fast finishers hoping to stay in contention
While the climbers will hope to capitalise on the tough parcours, plenty of heavier, fast-finishing Classics specialists will do all they can to remain in contention after the toughest climbs are done.
A mostly downhill 21km run-in to the finish following the final climb of Kagosaka (which, at just over 2km at an average of about five per cent, isn’t especially difficult) means there’s a chance for any gaps opened up on the Mikuni climb to be closed down before the finish.
So although the balance leans towards the climbers, the puncheurs remain in with a shout. Alexey Lutsenko (Kazakhstan) has shown a significant improvement in his climbing this season, so could still be in contention during the finale of the road race provided he’s not too tired from defending his top ten place at the Tour, while Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) and Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) will also hope the three weeks racing in France will serve them well ahead of the road race — although the latter appears a long way off the form required to be in the mix for a medal.
Max Schachmann returns to racing for the first time since being crowned national German champion in June, and will be among the favourites; as will Gianni Moscon (Italy), provided he can retain the form he was in earlier this season.
And then there’s Alejandro Valverde (Spain). Of all the fast finishers he should have the least problem not falling out of contention on the climbs, and, though he rode a quiet Tour de France, there were glimpses of his best form. With a strong Spain squad all united behind him, an Olympic win to his already stacked palmarès cannot be discounted.
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