An intriguingly balanced route
Controversially, the women’s Olympic road race avoids most of the climb’s featured in the men’s race, including the showpieces of the Mikuni Pass and the lower slopes of Mount Fuji. But what’s lost in terms of spectacle might be made up for in balance, as the route looks well designed to ensure a competitive, action-packed race when many different kinds of riders could win.
There is still a significant amount of climbing in the route. The rise up to Doushi Road is shallow but very long, so much so that the riders will spend almost 50km in the middle of the race travelling uphill. A plateau then brings them to the Kagosaka Pass, which, due to the wearing-out effect of the long effort on Doushi road, as well as the fact that’s it’s the last categorised climb on route, will likely see attacks from strong climbers hoping to avoid a sprint finish, despite its modest gradients of around five per cent.
Although there are no more categorised climbs from that point, small team sizes (even the top nations only get four riders each) will make it difficult for any team to control, and therefore likely to encourage aggressive, chaotic racing, especially given the undulating terrain that make up the final 40km.
The race could end with a solo winner from a long-range attack, a large group finish, and everything in between, but what does look certain is that the action will kick off early in the race, and make for gripping racing.
An all-star Dutch line-up
The Dutch have conquered all in recent years, winning all four of the last world road race titles as well as gold at both the Rio and London Olympics. Yet even by the standards they’ve set during this time, the four-woman squad they bring to Tokyo looks formidable.
Defending champion Anna van der Breggen rides in what will be one of her last ever races before retiring at the end of this season, and has been as dominant as ever this season. Nobody could get near her at the Giro Rosa earlier this month, and there’s little reason to believe that she won’t be just as untouchable in Tokyo.
Annemiek van Vleuten is usually her most feared competitor when riding for trade teams, but the two will join forces for the Olympics road race, a race that will mean a lot to Van Vleuten after the horrific crash she suffered in Rio five years ago. The way she recovered from that potentially career-ending incident to return better than ever has been remarkable, and victory in Tokyo would be a poetic finishing touch to what has been an extraordinary return.
Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten are the team’s best climbers, but should the race not prove to be overly selective their other two riders could figure. Demi Vollering has forged a great partnership with Van der Breggen since her move to SD Worx at the start of the season, winning La Course and Liège-Bastogne-Liège while working in tandem with her team-mate, and could again use her quick finish to triumph in Tokyo. And no-one is better in sprinting from a reduced bunch than 2012 gold medalist Marianne Vos, who will surely sit back and keep her sprint finish in reserve should none of her team-mates’ attacks succeed.
With so much talent and strength in depth, anything other than yet another gold for the Dutch will be deemed a big disappointment.
Deignan hoping to add gold to palmarès
This time nine years ago, a 23-year-old Lizzie Deignan went toe-to-toe with Marianne Vos on a rainy day in the outskirts of London, narrowly missing out in a two-woman sprint against the Dutchwoman to take an Olympic silver medal.
Since then, Deignan has gone on to have an exceptional career, winning most of the biggest one-day races on the calendar, including the World Championships in 2015, the Tour of Flanders in 2016 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year. But an Olympics gold remains conspicuous by its absence on her palmares, something she’s hoping to put right on Sunday.
The signs are that she’s coming into form at just the right time. Following a slow start to the season, she won the Tour de Suisse in June, and climbed well to finish fourth at the Giro d’Italia Donne.
Like everyone else who isn’t Dutch, she’s up against it taking on the peloton’s strongest nation. But if she rides smartly and uses her tactical nous to keep herself in contention for the finishing stages, and use either her punchy acceleration or lethal sprint finish, then victory is certainly within her grasp.
Other top nations hoping to challenge the Dutch
Four other nations as well as the Netherlands will line-up with the maximum number of four riders, and the onus will be on them to disrupt the expected Dutch supremacy.
Elisa Longo Borghini has been one of the few riders to regularly challenge the elite Dutch riders over the past few seasons, and leads a strong Italian squad that also features Marta Cavalli, Soraya Paladin and Marta Bastianelli. Despite looking a bit off at the Giro d’Italia Donne, Borghini looks like the Italian’s best hope, and would flourish in an open, attacking race where her speciality of explosive, unpredictable attacks are difficult to control.
The Aussies have been bullish about their expectations, with Grace Brown insisting that they’re not racing for just a silver medal behind the Dutch. She’ll form a useful partnership with her BikeExchange team-mate Amanda Spratt, with Brown providing a threat with her punchy attacks, and Spratt potentially going clear on the climbs.
The Americans have an enviously multi-faceted line-up. Leah Thomas and Ruth Winder can put in attacks on the undulating terrain, Coryn Rivera (who recently won her first race in almost two years at Giro d’Italia Donne) will be deadly in a sprint if she can remain in contention, and Chloe Dygert provides an intriguing wildcard in a rare outing on the road.
Finally, the German team doesn’t look like quite as much of a threat, but both Liane Lippert and Lisa Brennauer are outside bets for victory.
Sometimes riding for a team with less firepower and support can counter-intuitively have its advantages, as it’s possible to fly under the radar, follow all the moves, and take the bigger nations by surprise with a well-timed attack. Several of the peloton’s top stars from less prestigious nations will be hoping that’s the case in Tokyo.
Kasia Niewiadoma is used to carrying the burden for her trade team Canyon-SRAM, and will be in a similar situation when she leads the three-woman Polish team in Tokyo. She’s long been on the brink of a big win like this, and Olympic gold would be a fitting win to match her perhaps unfulfilled talent.
Despite their illustrious cycling history, neither Belgium nor Spain have much strength-in-depth, meaning their respective leaders Lotte Kopecky and Mavi García may be left to fend for themselves. The rest of the bunch must make sure that Koppecky isn’t around in the finale for a potential sprint finish, given her lethal kick, and they can also ill-afford to give García too much leeway if she strikes out for a long-range attack.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio was in great climbing form to finish second at Giro d’Italia Donne, and will now go up against the very Dutch riders she rode alongside for South Africa. Switzerland’s Maren Reusser will also be a threat, if she can rediscover last season’s form in time.
And one nation likely to punch above their weight are Denmark. They’ll have only two riders in the road race, but both are potential winners — Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, whose consistency makes her a great shout for a medal, and Emma Norsgaard, who will be one of the hot favourites if the race ends in a sprint.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour