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Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz won the Olympic men’s cycling road race on Saturday, conquering a brutal mountainous course in sweltering conditions to claim the South American nation’s second ever gold medal at the Games.
The race featured many of the world’s best riders, including Slovenia’s Tadej Pogačar, who could only claim bronze just a week after winning the Tour de France, the most prestigious race in professional cycling.
No one has ever claimed the Olympic title and the Tour’s general classification in the same year and many of the 126 riders who came to Tokyo to face temperatures that hit 32C and 70 per cent humidity arrived just days after finishing the Tour, a three-week test of endurance like no other.
The 28-year-old Carapaz, nicknamed “La Locomotora” or “The Locomotive”, proved to be made for the men’s individual road race, having grown up chugging over high altitude peaks in his home country’s often humid climate.
Power-to-weight ratio is a key factor in tackling courses made for the world’s best climbers. According to research by cycling trainers Hunter Allen and Andre Coggan, top riders can produce, at most, 6.40 w/kg over a 60-minute period. Pogačar is among those to have to be able to consistently stay close to that limit.
This measure explains why heavier cyclists struggle to ascend the toughest peaks. They have bigger muscles and put more power through the pedals, but this is more than offset by the amount of energy needed to drag their greater weight up steep roads.
Strong climbers must also show the ability to maintain their pace for long periods, fighting gravity by constantly exerting power to force the wheels onwards.
The race conditions indeed sapped the energy of the riders as they made their way over the 234km course, which takes in 5km of elevation along the lower slopes of Mount Fuji and a challenging climb at the Mikuni Pass, which has a gradient of 10.6 per cent.
Pogačar looked well set at the Mikuni Pass, which lies just 37.3km to the finish, launching a sudden burst of acceleration that pulled him away from his rivals.
Ultimately, however, given the thousands of kilometres in his legs from the Tour de France, he could not sustain the effort and was pulled back into the chasing pack.
Of those who survived the climbs, it was Carapaz who proved the strongest. First, he broke away from the peloton with the USA’s Brandon McNulty, the pair working together to master a dizzying high-speed descent that was a test of technique and bravery.
Then, as the race approached its conclusion at the Fuji International Speedway Course, he produced a final attack to ride alone to the finish.
Behind him a sprint unfolded for the silver and bronze medals. That led to a photo finish between the two pre-race favourites, Belgium’s Wout van Aert, who beat Pogačar for silver by a wheel’s width.
At the end, riders were greeted by around 11,000 spectators at the speedway course.
The ban on gathering in stadiums during the Games due to Covid does not extend outside the capital, leading masked members of the public to disregard official advice and line the route that snaked south-west out of Tokyo.
Some beat traditional drums as the riders passed, while at one point, an exuberant young man wearing nothing but underwear sprinted alongside the leaders.
These crowds belied opinion polls that suggested a lack of enthusiasm for staging the Games amid a pandemic.
There is a sadness that the spectacular road race, which showcases Japan’s spectacular interior, from lush forests to impeccably presented towns, is likely to be one of the few ways Olympians get to witness the beauty of Japan, as well as the main way the Japanese people will see some of the world’s best athletes in action during these Games.