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Olympic Games Road Cycling: Is This Really Happening?

Tenuous Tokyo Games could make for a memorable weekend

Konnichiwa Tiesj!
Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Pinch me... is this actually happening? A year late and the subject of ten thousand ominous sounding news reports, the Tokyo Olympic Games are about to get started at something akin to Ronde van Vlaanderen time, e.g. 4am Pacific. The Games Will Begin!

I love the Olympics, in part thanks to the mystique that I’ve been gobbling up since 1976, when Nadia Comaneci became a superstar and introduced millions of Americans to the existence of Romania. When Bruce* Jenner won the decathlon and was declared the world’s best all-around athlete, setting himself up to live a completely calm and quiet life. When American athletes like Sugar Ray Leonard and John Naber (a swimmer) and numerous others became overnight stars. A year later my school took a trip to Montreal, which was within driving distance from Massachusetts, and I saw the actual venues where the games happened. I was hooked.

[*I am of course referring to Caitlyn Jenner and mean no disrespect by referring to her former name, just making a joke about life before Keeping Up With the Kardashians.]

Since then, my views of the Olympics in general have shifted as they Games have been exposed as in part an unsavory showcase for greed and manipulation, awarded through a process that reached peak corruption in the US and I don’t know if it’s pulled back much from there. The concept of amateurism, which we all accepted 40 years ago, has its own untenable and maybe unsavory elements to it. No question the brand of the Olympics has suffered greatly since my innocent childhood. But the uncapitalized games, the sporting events themselves, are mostly still great theater and in some cases a vital lifeline to public exposure. Athletes cherish them as much as ever (outside of the mega-rich ball sports like soccer and basketball), making competition generally top-level and thrilling. And the host country usually gets to show us itself, efforts which range from naked propaganda to something far more interesting.

And to me the Tokyo ones are extra special. I lived in Japan for a very eventful year, part of an almost lifelong enchantment with the place. I won’t go on a long tangent about the pros and cons of Japan, you all probably know the place pretty well, even if from afar. I will, however, say that I am almost certainly more excited than you about the Sumo performance at the opening ceremonies. Here is the version performed in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano by Akebono, an American-born sumotori (we try not to use “wrestler” or “wrestling” when discussing sumo) who had attained the top level of Yokozuna, and was thus granted the honor of stamping out the evil spirits in the Olympic Stadium. [Video link should play starting just moments before the dohyo-iri ceremony.]

I haven’t seen much in the press, but I expect Mongolian-born Hakuho to be granted the honor in Tokyo. Hakuho is arguably the greatest champion of all time, certainly by modern sumo metrics (basically wins and losses, not sure if advanced metrics have infiltrated sumo yet). He’s also a bad-ass of “young Sean Penn” levels, at least by the hyper-traditional and conservative norms of Sumo. He scowls, he fist-pumps, he stares down judges as readily as he does his opponent. And he kicks everyone’s ass, which makes it all OK to the fans (if very much not to the Elders of Sumo, who are exactly what you would imagine).

Sumo Wrestlers Celebrate New Year In Tokyo
Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

As Tadej Pogacar was gearing up to saunter into Paris for his coronation, Hakuho was winning one of the greatest tournament victories in decades, over a fellow Mongolian with his own unbelievable story in the first meeting of two final-day-undefeated sumotori since the 1980s. Despite his behavioral quirks, Hakuho carries all of the greatness he has achieved as openly as a thirtysomething Bernard Hinault did, willing everyone into respecting him at first sight. Thus, he has all of the dignity one needs to perform the dohyo-iri opening ceremony sometime tomorrow morning. I can’t fucking wait.

Men’s Road Race — Basic Info

In case you hadn’t seen this already, here is the map and profile for the Men’s Road Race. The race is on Saturday, the 24th.

Olympics RR Map
Olympic RR Profile

Mikuni Pass is the place where the race will likely be decided, or substantially influenced anyway, so you’ll want to know that it’s 10.5% on average for its 7km or so, with ramps hitting 16%. No laughing matter, although I wonder if it’s long enough to narrow the race to the purest of pure climbers. Kagosaka Pass won’t be a huge difference-maker, nor is the long 6% climb to Fuji Sanroku positioned to separate out the winners, but the descent to the finish at Fuji International Speedway will definitely play a role.

Here’s your men’s startlist. Highlights are:

  • Slovenia — with Pogacar and Roglic for leaders, and Tratnik and Polanc in support, they will be watched very, very carefully. Both Pogs and Rogs have finished off Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a monument in both length and difficulty which favors guys who do a lot of things well. Both will have form questions, namely what’s worse, finishing off the whole Tour or crashing out with injury? Nobody is putting anything past Pogacar, that’s for sure.
  • Belgium — The flipside of climbers who can sprint is of course sprinters who can climb, and that would be a nice way of describing Wout Van Aert, if he weren’t all that and more. I really wonder if Mikuni Pass is long enough for the climbers to drop Wonder Wout, because if it isn’t, this race may already be over. The Belgians have no shortage of options, with Remco Evenepoel there to slip away from the pack if they are all too focused on Van Aert. They will be a major force.
  • Spain — Because what the world needs now is a Valverde gold medal. This course is perfect for some version of him, although maybe not 41-year-old Valv.
  • The rest — Italy and Denmark will have someone there, as will the Brits (Hart or Thomas?? Right or Wrong Yates??). Switzerand (Mader and Hirschi) are dark horses. Michael Woods (CAN), Max Schachmann (GER), Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) and Joao Almeida (POR) seem more interesting than their teams. Just spitballing after that.
32nd Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile 2021 - Stage 10 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Women’s Road Race — Basic Info

As usual, the women’s race is a bit patronizingly short and less challenging. It happens a day after the men’s race, on Sunday the 25th.

Olympic Women’s road race

Startlist HERE. The Ladies have had a bit more time off since the Giro Rosa ended 11 days ago so I don’t think it’s worth speculating about things like exhaustion. Not sure that’s even worth doing with the men. Some people will have hit the wall but we won’t know til after.

The Dutch ladies continue to dominate top-level racing, with four of the top six riders in world rankings assembled as their Olympic squad — van Vleuten, van der Breggen, Vos and Vollering. This is significant, as the race isn’t as naturally selective as the men’s race, with no Mikuni Pass, so teamwork is likely to be a major factor. [Don’t get me wrong, 2600 meters of climbing is still selective.] Australia, Germany, Italy and the US all have four-person teams, with three riders each from Belgium, Canada and Poland, so those are your power formations. However, the non-Dutch ones will want to team up with some of the powerful non-Dutch individuals (Moolman, Deignan, the Danes) to put the NL on their back heels, if that is possible to do.

Time trials are next Tuesday, July 27th, and I’ll provide a preview Monday. Very spicy competition coming!

OLY-2020-TOKYO-VENUE-CYCLING Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

A Last Thought

The Olympics have provided some excellent racing, notwithstanding the way the games are wedged into the calendar after, say, the Tour de France. The Rio road race, apart from some unnecessarily dangerous spots that led to some nasty crashes, was otherwise a very selective and aggressive race featuring all of the big stars (minus sprinters). The Beijing race was equally wonderful, and without the caveats from crashes, though with some different caveats about, um, where the sport was at generally? London less great, but they did their best with some mostly flat terrain IIRC. Based on that recent experience, I have high hopes for a course as selective as the Tokyo one. The transfer to Japan, so far away, and the threat of COVID hanging over everything, could combine to blunt the excellence of this race, we will see.

OK, who ya got?? Remember, this is scored like a Monument for the FSA Directeur Sportif, so there is a LOT at stake. I don’t have a guess for the Women, but I will go with Wout Van Aert in gold for the next three years.