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Olympics Update: Favorites Fall Flat in Fuji Foothills

Plus an Emergency Mathieu vs Wout Rankings Update

Olympic Games Day 2 - Cycling Road Photo by Ronald Hoogendoorn/BSR Agency/Getty Images

You know the results. I don’t have to explain them to you. But there is just so goddamn much to talk about that I simply can’t not put up a post.

Women’s Road Race: I Am Speechless.

The talk of the Olympics thus far is... well, any of several things maybe but high up the list is the victory of 3x Austrian time trial champ Anna Kiesenhofer. Obviously the story has been told a lot but basically Kiesenhofer was up the road with two other riders, but somehow the Dutch team car thought that the two — Poland’s Anna Plichta and Israel’s Omer Shapira — were the front of the race. So when they were reeled in, at least Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten, the two biggest favorites for victory, thought they had sprung van Vleuten for gold. The communication failure apparently came down to phone problems in the team car, and with no race radios to further clarify things, chaos was allowed to reign. [Marianne Vos, however, said she knew a third rider was still away, using her own eyes rather than spotty info to manage things. As always, the lesson is... BE LIKE MARIANNE!]

JAPAN-TOKYO-OLY-CYCLING ROAD-WOMEN Photo by Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images

However much you want to attribute Kiesenhofer’s win to this bizarre nonsense, the reality is that a large part of the day can be chalked up to an Olympian display of cycling politics. A break of some dimension was up the road, and when you have an overwhelmingly strong team in a race, the responsibility falls to them to control things. But things got tricky from there. Kiesenhofer is such an unknown that I don’t know that people took her as seriously as they should have — this was hardly the men’s course, so any western European national time trial champ was a potential problem over the final 20km or so, whick Kiesenhofer started with something like a five minute advantage. Then you have the Olympics setup, where even the mighty mighty Dutch were limited to a mere four riders, all of them potential champions who maybe aren’t terribly used to domestique work. [At Worlds the top teams can field up to 8 riders, leaving plenty of space for Dutch domestiques to knit together the squad of superstar trade-team rivals.] Had they been clearer about Kiesenhofer’s advantage, maybe they would have rallied to chase in time and not left two full minutes on the table at the end. But it was going to be a mess either way.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 2
“It’s not what you think...”
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Rarely did any other team offer to help in the chase — teams who mostly knew that the gold medal had already slipped away before the Dutch started to work at the end. Kiesenhofer’s win, by then, was no less inevitable than a Dutch win would have been had, say, the US and Belgium got on the front and reeled in the Austrian. So what did it matter that the Dutch fucked the race all to hell? In post-race comments riders from rival nations were about as broken up as the average football fan after Tom Brady throws an interception.

Some did lament women’s cycling being painted in a foolish light, and not for nothing, but the culprit isn’t the sport. It’s just one of those things... that even still might not have mattered in a Worlds format with bigger teams. This is too bad, because the Olympics are all about showcasing sports and athletes to a broader world who might know or care about the sport’s intricacies even less than your average American Lance fanboy back in the day. The women put on an amazing show in Rio, if anyone can remember that far back, and I suspect that they’ll do so again in Paris in three years. But for now this is a downer.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Men’s Road Race: You Were Warned

Since it’s been a few days, you now know that the men’s race was won by Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz, in a surprise of far lesser proportions. The third-place finisher at the Tour de France was in among the favorites from the “rest of the climbers” after the Slovenians and the nation-state known as Wout Van Aert, so he hardly came out of nowhere. More specifically, he came out of an overly large peloton following the dreaded Mikuni Pass, which should have sorted out the field a bit more and left, for example, a non-mountain goat like Van Aert out of contention. But it didn’t, and Carapaz emerged from the chaos with American Brandon McNulty, who he eventually dispatched for the solo win, with Van Aert sprinting just ahead of top favorite Tadej Pogacar for silver.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

This was about how the race should have gone, in some respects. Mikuni Pass was hard enough for the purest of pure climbers to take charge, but short enough and far enough from the finish for them not to if they didn’t truly apply themselves. As with the women, Olympic formatting had a role with lots of small teams looking for help from their rivals, though unlike the Dutch the Slovenians had a very smart foursome with two potential champions and two willing and able support riders. Had Primoz Roglic been better recovered from his Tour crash, maybe he would have primed the pump enough to fend off Van Aert, but he wasn’t and they didn’t and the rest is history.

Mikuni Pass ended with Van Aert latched back on to the Pogacar group, which meant that the race was over for a lot of climbers at that point. Van Aert’s legendary pain tolerance meant that the heat and the middling climbs left to get over were probably less of a problem for him than a lot of others, so you can’t blame the favorites for not towing him along when McNulty and then Carapaz rode away. Some of us (ahem!) even said that they would need a minute at the top of Mikuni Pass to keep Wout safely at bay and unavailable to descend and sprint to the win. Then maybe even the famously uncoordinated nature of pelotons would have managed to not let Van Aert back in, with enough attacks to keep the pace high. But they came nowhere close to that goal. All credit to Pogacar for having enough of a sprint to almost take a medal off Van Aert, the guy who just won on the Champs-Elysees. Had the Belgian not been an ace bike-thrower, Pogs might have taken a shocking placement.

More credit to Carapaz, though, for his tactical nous and for bringing home his country’s second-ever gold medal, after Jefferson Perez’ speed-walking win in 1996. This was a fun, intriguing, spicy race that launched a few conversations (as far as I know of) about whether the UCI should find space on its calendar for this course, if Utsunomiya ever gets tired of hosting the Japan Cup. The reality is that Japan is almost nothing but mountains with cute, narrow roads, so the road racing possibilities are literally endless. Maybe the Olympics will bring a bit more attention to what’s already been going on there for a couple decades.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 1
The lunge for silver
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Mathieu vs Wout: Rankings Updated!

OK, now to the truly substantive portion of this article, ranking the two biggest stars of cycling. And we have a pretty clear ranking now:

  1. Wout Van Aert
  2. Mathieu van der Poel

Yes, two weeks ago Mathieu was in yellow, having stolen the lead and a few hearts along the way with his second stage heroics in France. He honored his heritage the only way he can, with an outburst of pure power that nobody else could match. But since then, things have gone the other way. Wout became a three-stage star at the Tour, to the point where I had to write yet another post about him, and then took silver in the road race, while at the cross-country race in Izu yesterday, van der Poel’s mountain biking medal ambitions went... very, very badly. Here is a visual representation of how things have gone for the two in Japan:

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Cycling - Mountain Bike - Olympics: Day 3 Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Unseen in that second photo is the rock surface that van der Poel’s front wheel is landing on... and that’s actually good news, since any further plummeting would have made the inevitable that much worse. At least he got a shock-absorbed bounce before going over the bars. This was lap one of seven, and he did manage to resume racing, because eating shit is a pretty routine thing in the much slower moving parade of MTB. But he lost a minute, seemed banged up, and retired on lap 5 or thereabouts.

Olympic dreams are years in the making — five years, in his case — and they die painful deaths. To put van der Poel’s Olympic dreams in a samurai manga context, this is the equivalent of walking down the street, minding your own business, and having a ninja pop pop out of nowhere to throw a poison-tipped shuriken in your face.

The truly maddening thing is that, once again, it seems like some misunderstanding did the Dutch in, as van der Poel was apparently under the impression that the race would include a plank that he could roll down from the rock drop, rather than jump it. The plank had been in place at some point but was removed for the race, a point he had discussed with teammate Milan Vader (a great name), who finished 10th in the race. So how the CX world champ could have made this mistake is perplexing, to say the least. So I guess a better samurai manga analogy is where someone is walking along and someone else says “whatever you do, don’t keep going or a ninja will throw a poison-tipped shuriken in your face” but they ignore the warning and just keep going.

Oh, and the race was won by none other than Tom Pidcock of the UK, our old Crosser friend, who pretty much singlehandedly blew up the Swiss team of favorite Nino Schurter and Mathias Flueckiger, who took silver. Pidcock, you may recall, was hit by a car in June and suffered a broken collarbone, but in his increasingly Wout-like fashion, the 21-year-old picked himself up and got fit enough for Tokyo, where he navigated narrowly around a heap of van der Poel limbs and bike parts to stay on course and in contact with the Swiss, eventually piling on some van der Poelish pressure, particularly on the soft, dusty climbs, to drop all comers. He cemented his place in cycling lore by telling the press at the finish that “I’m happy this shit’s only every four years because it’s fucking stressful.” He also threw a whip off the rock drop on a later lap, undoubtedly not missing a chance to celebrate van der Poel’s demise, something he only rarely got to do in the last CX season. This kid is for bloody real.

Know Any Good Dutch Expletives?

The fact that all of the worst stuff is happening to Dutch athletes is notable, to say the least. Dutch Cycling has had quite a run at the national team level, which is barely a thing in Cycling except for the annual world championships week and the quadrennial Olympics. And in those world championships, the Dutch have scored between four and eight medals in the last six years, a vast haul far exceeding the competition. They are the strongest squad when the Oranje goes on. And the women aren’t coming home empty-handed regardless, with a juicy ITT event still left to come.

But the disasters are piling up in increasingly weird ways. Telephonic troubles are a shocker for a technologically sophisticated people driving around a technologically sophisticated country. Forgetting about a wooden plank not being there is even more bizarre, although van der Poel has his share of brain farts next to his otherwise glittering palmares. Then, to make matters worse, Niek Kimmann, the top NL BMX rider, has a sore knee after being taken out in training by a course marshal wandering around aimlessly.

Still, things could be worse for the Dutch cycling squad. They have yet to see a rider vaporized by a giant moth with energy beams shooting out of its eyes. They have only metaphorically had poison-tipped shuriken thrown at them. Mount Fuji has not sent a perfectly aimed micro-stream of lava into their team bus. They have not been engulfed by a Hokusai giant wave painting. They can still dust themselves off and make the best of the next few days.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
Dutch 8x crew team training in Tokyo Harbor
Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images