The podium from Rio five years ago: Rafal Majka (left, bronze), Greg Van Avermaet (center, gold) and Jakob Fuglsang (right, silver).

Preview: Your guide to the men’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics

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The Tokyo Olympics have arrived and for us cycling fans the action begins immediately. The men’s road race is the Olympics’ first cycling event and it’s being held this Saturday July 24, starting at 11am Tokyo time (12pm AEST; 7pm PDT; 4am CEST).

The following article is your guide to the course, the contenders, and how the race might unfold. Follow the link for a preview of Sunday’s women’s road race.

The course

The men’s road race course for the Tokyo Olympics is 234 km long and includes almost 5,000 metres of climbing. In the words of Australian rider Lucas Hamilton, “it’s a super hard course. I’ve been here now since Saturday and I’ve ridden most of the course, and it’s really tricky,” he told CyclingTips from Tokyo. “It’s hot, it’s humid, and there’s a lot of climbing.”

The course can be broken down into five sections:

1. Down from Tokyo (black line in map and profile)

This first part of the course is roughly 110 km long and takes the riders from Tokyo’s western suburbs to the Fuji International Speedway which they’ll revisit later on.

A good chunk of this section tends uphill (see profile below) but there are two recognised climbs: the gradual uphill of Doushi Road (ending with 4.3 km at 6.1%) and the short kick up to Kagosaka Pass (2.2 km at 4.7%). It’s downhill from the last of these climbs to the speedway.

2. Mt. Fuji circuit (yellow)

This second section is 50.9 km long and features a climb partway up the iconic Mt. Fuji (14.3 km at 6%). From there it’s downhill back to the speedway.

3. Fuji Speedway circuit (red)

The riders will do 1.5 laps of a 17.7 km circuit before heading out for the toughest part of the race.

4. Mikuni Pass section (orange)

This 30.6 km section features two climbs: the tough Mikuni Pass (6.5 km at 10.6%) and a second ascent of Kagosaka Pass.

Mikuni Pass is the toughest climb of the race and peaks 34 km from the finish line. Kagosaka Pass tops out 21 km from the finish. From there it’s downhill to the entrance to the Fuji Speedway.

5. Back to the Fuji Speedway (red)

The riders will finish with a half-lap of the Fuji Speedway. Note that there’s a short climb at the start of that half-lap.

Team composition

The Olympic road race is unusual for a few reasons. For starters, it’s one of only a handful of races where riders race for their country rather than their trade team. And compared to almost every other race on the calendar, Olympic road race teams are small and unevenly distributed.

The strongest nations (i.e. those with the most UCI points) get a full five riders in the road race, while the weakest nations only have one place. You can find a full breakdown of national quotas here but here’s a quick summary of the countries with the most spots in the 130-rider race:

Five riders: Belgium, Colombia, Spain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands

Four riders: Australia, Denmark, Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Slovenia, and Switzerland

Three riders: Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Poland, South Africa, and Russia.

So what does this all mean? Well, smaller teams means fewer cards to play than normal, and less ability to control the race. For example, with only four riders, you won’t see Great Britain riding the front all day like Ineos Grenadiers is wont to do in the Grand Tours. Less control likely means a more chaotic and more aggressive race, which is good for those of us watching at home.

Note that the power of trade team loyalties shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, riders will be loyal to their national teammates, but don’t be surprised if you see trade teammates helping one another out on occasion – the loyalty that comes from racing together all season doesn’t disappear easily.

A quick tip for picking riders in a peloton that’s full of different kits than normal: it’s often possible to combine a rider’s national colours with the colour of their helmet to work out who you’re looking at (riders will likely keep their trade team helmet and bike for the Olympic road race). For example, a Team Great Britain kit with a BikeExchange helmet can only be Simon Yates.

Same team, different bikes and helmets.

How it might unfold

This is set to be an intriguing race. As noted, it’s a very hard course, and assuming it’s raced aggressively, the inclusion of the Mt. Fuji and Mikuni Pass climbs ensure this is a race best suited to strong climbers. Mikuni Pass in particular is very steep and it’s hard to see anything more than a small group still being in contention by the top.

Note, though, that the race’s most important climbs aren’t right at the finish, so it’s not exactly a race for the pure climbers. The Fuji climb tops out 96 km from the finish, and from the top of Mikuni Pass it’s still 34 km to the line.

That said, Mikuni Pass could prove the perfect launch pad for an audacious rider who backs themselves to go the distance from there. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) going it alone there.

Here’s how Lucas Hamilton sees the race unfolding.

“I think, with the climbing all the way up from Tokyo and then with the climb at Mt. Fuji, by the time we get to the steep final climb it’s going to be pretty small group,” he said. “It’s still 30 km to go at the top of that climb, but it’s quite a fast 30 km so I think it’s open for aggressive racing, especially with … looking at previous Games’ races, it’s quite an open, aggressive race.”

Perhaps the most likely scenario goes something like this. A small group reaches the top of Mikuni Pass ahead of a splintered field. There are attacks aplenty in the leading group in the closing kilometres, particularly on the short Kagosaka Pass climb, and on the uphill entrance to the Fuji Speedway circuit. A solo rider manages to get clear at some point and rides to Olympic glory.

But who really knows. Anything from a solo rider to a group of, say, 10 riders seems possible. It’s hard to see a bigger group than reaching the finish in contention though.

A couple more quick factors to take into account. First, it’s hot and humid in Tokyo (31 ºC / 88 ºF on race day) which is different to the conditions most riders have been racing in this season, even those that have come straight from the Tour. It’s hard to say how that will affect the racing exactly, but it will certainly make a hard race even harder.

It’s also worth noting the proximity to the finish of the Tour. Riders who have come from Paris have had less than a week’s recovery before lining up in Tokyo, in which time they’ve had to take a decent flight and overcome jet lag. Riders that have handled the travel and adaptation well will have a decent leg-up.

The contenders and the challengers

There are many riders on the startlist that could threaten for a medal on Saturday. Here’s a selection.

Belgium sends a strong five-rider team to Tokyo, headlined by two of the sport’s biggest stars: Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel. Van Aert is fresh off three stage wins at the Tour de France, including a stunning solo stage win on the double Mont Ventoux day.

On paper you’d say the course is probably too hard for Van Aert (Mikuni Pass in particular), but who’s going to write him off after the Tour he had?

Can Van Aert climb with the best in Tokyo?

Evenepoel comes to Tokyo off the back of victory at the Belgium Tour in June and podium finishes at the Belgian nationals. He’ll be fresher than Van Aert and you’d expect the 21-year-old to be there deep into the race. If he can get away on Mikuni Pass he’s as good a chance as any rider to stay away.

Note that Belgium also has the reigning Olympic champ Greg Van Avermaet, Tiesj Benoot, and Mauri Vansevenant. That’s a strong line-up for a nation that will likely be disappointed with anything less than a medal.

Speaking of nations with multiple strong cards, how about Slovenia? Tadej Pogačar will be there, less than a week after winning the Tour, so too will Primož Roglič, who left the Tour early after a crash on stage 3.

If fresh, either of these Grand Tour winners could win gold on Saturday. The big question is: how fresh is Pogačar after the Tour? And how well has Roglič recovered after his crash? Slovenia’s fortunes depend on how well these two have recovered, and how well they’re able to work together on the day. If it all comes together, Slovenia should medal.

While the Dutch men’s squad isn’t as ridiculous as the women’s, it is certainly a strong line-up that’s capable of taking home a medal. Wilco Kelderman just finished fifth at the Tour, Bauke Mollema won a hilly stage from the breakaway at the Tour, and then there’s Giro winner Tom Dumoulin who’s on the comeback trail after a brief absence from the sport.

Who knows where Dumoulin’s form’s at, and how well the others have recovered from the Tour, but if things go their way, the Dutch certainly have the firepower to get a good result.

The same can be said of the Spanish line-up, headlined by the evergreen Alejandro Valverde. A few years back Valverde would have been a big favourite for this race. Now he’s probably a little further down the pecking order, but still a very real chance of a medal.

He still climbs well enough to be somewhere in the mix on the important climbs, and if it comes down to a small group, he’s dangerous in a sprint. The course isn’t too dissimilar to the 2018 Worlds course in Innsbruck where Valverde won a three-up sprint to take the rainbow jersey.

Third in that 2018 Worlds road race was Canadian Michael Woods. Woods is in with a great shot of a medal in Tokyo too. He’s excellent uphill, particularly on the steep stuff, and we’d expect him to be in the mix late in proceedings on Saturday.

Great Britain takes a stacked line-up to Tokyo with Adam Yates, Simon Yates, Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart all in attendance. That’s three Grand Tour winners on a four-rider squad.

Thomas and Simon Yates crashed at the Tour and their current fitness is a little unknown, and Geoghegan Hart didn’t seem at the same level as when he won the Giro last year. On paper, Adam Yates could be the man for Team GB. He hasn’t raced since Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April so his form’s a little unknown but he should certainly be fresh.

Jakob Fuglsang headlines the Danish contingent and would normally be one of the riders to beat. He’s a proven climber and one-day specialist – he’s won the two most climby Monuments, solo, in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia – and he finished second five years ago in the Rio Olympics road race.

But Fuglsang’s been average the last little while and was unable to finish inside the top 20 on a single Tour de France stage. He put this down to the after-effects of a second COVID vaccine. Can he be back to his best by Saturday? If so, he’s a very good chance of another Olympic medal.

Fuglsang winning the 2020 Il Lombardia.

Italy has a stacked line-up of climbers that includes Giro runner-up Damiano Caruso, Grand Tour mountain stage winner Giulio Ciccone, and multiple-time Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. The Australian squad also has quality climbers in Richie Porte and Lucas Hamilton and should be represented late.

France has a couple of strong options in David Gaudu, fresh off four top-10 stage finishes at the Tour, and the dangerous climber Guillaume Martin. Max Schachmann is a strong climber and one-day performer who will headline the German team. Marc Hirschi will lead the Swiss team and will hopefully have recovered from a separated shoulder at the Tour. At his best, he’s more than capable of winning on Saturday, likely with a late solo move.

Colombia takes a strong line-up including Nairo Quintana, Rigo Uran, Sergio Higuita and Esteban Chaves. That’s a bunch of very strong climbers and a lot of cards to play, depending on how the race unfolds. Russia (officially the “Russian Olympic Committee”) brings a strong three-rider line-up as well: Pavel Sivakov, Ilnur Zakarin and Aleksandr Vlasov. Any of those three could still be in contention over the final climb.

Vlasov was in the mix late at last year’s Il Lombardia.

For other possible contenders consider the following.

Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) is coming off third overall at the Tour, he climbs brilliantly, and he’s happy going on the attack. Rafal Majka (Poland), the bronze medalist from Rio, was climbing well in the final week of the Tour and will join forces with former world champ Michal Kwiatkowski. And then there’s Alexey Lutsenko who leads the Kazakhstan line-up and should be in the mix late.

In summary, there are a lot of riders in with a shot of a medal on Saturday, particularly if it’s an open and aggressive race as it seems likely to be. It should be a great one to watch.

Who’s your pick to win the men’s Olympic road race?

Follow the link for a full startlist for the men’s road race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And head on through to read Abby Mickey’s preview of the women’s road race.

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