The Olympic Games road events are an increasing­ly prestigiou­s addition to the road season. Procycling looks at how the women’s road race especially was one of the most spectacula­r in living memory


Procycling looks at the Tokyo road events to find out what makes them different from all other races

The ronin were samurai warriors in Japan’s feudal period between the 1200s and late 1800s who were defined by their lack of fealty to a shogun. The literal translatio­n of the two kanji that make up the word - ‘rou’ and ‘nin’ - is ‘wandering person’ but the word was used to describe a caste of masterless samurai. They were individual­istic, itinerant and independen­t freelance warriors for hire, roaming the countrysid­e causing trouble and disrupting the natural order of things. The ronin were no match for the armies of the dominant warlords, but they were dangerous and industriou­s. Sometimes an individual working cleverly could do more damage than a strong outfit of warriors.

This is something of which the stronger nations in the women’s road race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games might have been more cognisant when the eventual gold medallist, Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofe­r, initiated the early break.

Such as the Netherland­s. The facetious but understand­able question in the weeks before the race was: which Dutch rider would win the gold medal? The four riders in orange who took the start line in Tokyo were the world champion and defending Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen, world number one and 2019 world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, three-time world champion Marianne Vos, plus Demi Vollering, the fast-rising classics specialist who won Liège-Bastogne-Liège this spring and came to the Olympics off the back of a triumph at La Course. The other question - who would work for whom - seemed to be a less pressing concern in the excitement surroundin­g the Dutch galácticos. In the past, other riders had hopefully speculated that a surfeit of ambition and lack of goal harmony in the Dutch camp could render them vulnerable, yet the last time a rider who was not Dutch won either an Olympic or Worlds Road Race gold before the 2021 season was five years ago. Goal harmony or not, riders in orange had swept all before them for years, and they were expected to do the same on the Fuji Internatio­nal Speedway circuit in Shizuoka prefecture, where the cycling road events would finish.

The race was expected to take the following shape: an early break of four or five would go, they would get a solid but not insurmount­able lead, they would be chased down primarily by the Dutch, but also other strong nations might be expected to contribute a rider or two to the cause, and in the finale, one or other of the Dutch riders would break away. They would either be chased down by another nation, in which case another Dutch rider would break away, or not. Either way, the Dutch were expected to win.

However, a team of champions is not necessaril­y a champion team. The race followed the first part of the script, but nobody had taken anywhere near enough notice of Kiesenhofe­r or the slowly growing danger that she posed.

Speaking broadly, individual­ism is less highly valued in Japan than in ‘the west’. A variety of cultural influences has meant that though the society in general is very stratified and hierarchic­al in terms of seniority, decisions are made by group consensus and there is a general expectatio­n that individual ambition is subsumed for the good of the group. It’s surprising that road cycling has never quite taken off properly in Japan because in no other sport do individual­s quite have to subsume their own ambition for the good of the team to such an extent.

Orienting society around co-operation and prioritisi­ng the group over the individual may sound fantastic and communitym­inded, but the flip side, of course, is that there can be an element of coercion in suppressin­g individual­ism, for better and/or for worse. There is a famous Japanese saying: ‘The nail that sticks up is hammered down.’

The Dutch might have assumed that they could apply similar to Kiesenhofe­r’s individual­istic riding. However, the problem was that to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The Dutch were expected to win. However, a team of champions is not necessaril­y a champion team. Nobody had taken enough notice of Kiesenhofe­r or the slowly growing danger that she posed

As the race approached the biggest climb of the day, on the Doushi road about two thirds through, the Dutch riders started to attack the peloton. Demi Vollering went with just over 60km to go. Van der Breggen tried next, counteratt­acking Ruth Winder of the USA. Then on the climb itself, with 55 to go, Van Vleuten went away.

It might have looked like Van Vleuten was reprising the longrange attack which brought her the 2019 world road race championsh­ips in Harrogate, but was this an attack, or was it a chase? Kiesenhofe­r’s group, which started at five riders and reduced to three - Kiesenhofe­r, Anna Plichta of Poland and Omer Shapira of Israel - had led by over 10 minutes with 100km to go, and when the Dutch started taking turns hammering away, they were still almost seven minutes in arrears.

At the time, it may have looked like the best thing to do. Van Vleuten may have realised that with the gap at seven minutes with under 60km something needed to be done, but the warning signs did not take long to make themselves clear. The Dutchwoman’s huge initial surge took almost two minutes out of the leaders and one out of the peloton, but then the gaps stabilised, for many kilometres. At 50km to go, it was 5:37 from the leaders to Van Vleuten and 6:19 to the peloton. At 45, 5:17 and 6:26 respective­ly. Kiesenhofe­r dropped Plichta and Shapira at 42km, and then the gap stabilised at five minutes for a long, long, time, right up to 25km to go when Van Vleuten was pulled back.

It was clear by this point that the only way for the Dutch to win the race was for Kiesenhofe­r to lose it, but the Austrian is a former national time trial champion. She maintained her pace while the race ebbed and flowed behind her and in cycling, that scenario always favours the escapee. The hierarchy of power in cycling is that a coherent group will go faster than an individual rider will go faster than an incoherent group. It has always been this way and it always will be. The Dutch briefly rallied, and finally, after 129km of racing, there were four orange jerseys on the front of the peloton. In those final eight kilometres, they carved two minutes out of Kiesenhofe­r’s lead and launched Van Vleuten into a solo attack to take the silver medal. She thought she’d won, but that wasn’t Kiesenhofe­r’s fault.

In the end, the Dutch were too strong. This was possibly, pound for pound, the strongest ever team at any race, and there isn’t a single one of those four riders the selectors could have justified leaving at home; at the same time, a team of winners could not ride as

a team to win the race. In every phase of the race they made mistakes. They allowed the gap to go out too far, because they only had leaders, not domestique­s. Then they tried to chase as individual­s, rather than as a team. Finally they waited too long to start working. Sometimes, as the Japanese might have reminded the Dutch riders, individual ambition needs to be subsumed for the good of the group.

Much was understand­ably made of the Dutch failure to win, when they had such a strong team at their disposal. Excuses were made on their behalf: team sizes were too small, there were no race radios, communicat­ion about time gaps and number of riders up the road was poor…

However, in cycling the winner is always right. The Dutch did lose the race, but Kiesenhofe­r also won it. The Austrian has a doctorate in mathematic­s and maintains her academic career in Lausanne, though it doesn’t take that level of analysis to know that her only chance of winning the race was by this method. Attacking from kilometre zero may traditiona­lly be known as the suicide break, but there’s a greater probabilit­y of a rider like Kiesenhofe­r winning from a suicide break than of her winning by saving her energy and attacking later. In a straight fight against the best, she essentiall­y has zero chance of winning the bike race; but attacking at the start, no matter how small the chance, is a greater-than-zero probabilit­y. However unlikely her win, she chose the more likely method to result in victory.

The Dutch (and, indeed everybody else) may have been unwise to allow the break 11 minutes, but that is the dynamic of the Olympic peloton. The rules and convention­s that apply in the WorldTour, with larger teams and more effective communicat­ion, don’t apply in a race with 67 starters, four quartets and a motley collection of ones, twos and threes. Complainin­g about it after the fact is too late, and the grim faces in the Dutch camp once Van Vleuten had realised what had happened suggested that they knew they’d messed up the race.

Kiesenhofe­r’s physical effort should not be underestim­ated, either. She held Annemiek van Vleuten, who should theoretica­lly have been fresher, at five minutes for 20 kilometres, deep into the final hour. The Austrian looked to be in terrible pain as she maintained her output.

Another Japanese national trait is that of ‘gaman’,which translates loosely into English as ‘endurance’ but is far more textured a concept. It represents a combinatio­n of hard-headedness and a willingnes­s to submit oneself to considerab­le discomfort or inconvenie­nce in order to prevail. Kiesenhofe­r demonstrat­ed great gaman in winning the gold medal.

Mount Fuji cast a large shadow over the Olympic road events, especially the men’s road race, which took in a loop climbing part of the holy mountain’s south eastern flank. Or was that the presence of Wout van Aert? The Belgian was as big a favourite for the gold medal as the Dutch quartet would be in the

women’s race the next day, and he’d brought a similarly stacked team, though with five riders at the national federation’s disposal, they could at least include one or two domestique­s. Van Aert was supported by defending champion Greg Van Avermaet, Remco Evenepoel, Tiesj Benoot and Mauri Vansevenan­t.

The kanji which make up the name ‘Fuji’ have the meaning ‘abundance’ and ‘man of status’, and Van Aert lived up to the second by having his teammates control a large part of the race. Van Avermaet was instrument­al in keeping the peloton under control, as was Slovenia’s Jan Tratnik, working for Tadej Pogacar.

But the Olympic road race is rarely kind to the favourite, and Van Aert found that in the final selection of a dozen riders, each representi­ng a different country, he was outnumbere­d. Theoretica­lly, the race was all against all; in reality it was all against Van Aert. The Belgian covered attack after attack, and then Richard Carapaz went away with Brandon McNulty with 25km to go. The attack that Van Aert did not follow was going to be the one that won the race, and the Ecuadorian’s timing was impeccable. McNulty’s was less so - he couldn’t quite hold the effort and was dropped near the finish.

Carapaz is one of the best racers in the WorldTour. His third place at this year’s Tour de France was anomalous - he tried to match Tadej Pogacar in a battle of strength, with his Ineos Grenadiers team trying to set him up using their traditiona­l mountain train. However, his best results have come when he uses tactical finesse rather than brute strength. His Giro win in 2019 came because he took advantage of the visible tension between Primoz Roglic and Vincenzo Nibali. By the time his rivals realised he’d built an unassailab­le advantage, the damage had been done. He rode in a similar fashion in almost winning last year’s Vuelta, and the Olympic road race showcased his nose for a clever break. He was one of the strongest riders in the race, but he beat the actual strongest rider - Van Aert - with his head, not his legs.

The Olympic road events sit incongruou­sly in the cycling calendar, even more so in 2021 as the difference in time zones put them out on a limb. The team sizes mean that targeting them is a risk - so much can go wrong and a race is almost impossible to control with four or five-rider teams, let alone for the smaller cycling nations. The race logistics and infrastruc­ture are different - all other races are annual and so the organising teams can perfect things over time; the Olympics are every four years, and never in the same place twice. This manifests itself in things like poor communicat­ion to the riders and the race coverage missing the regular time gaps and informatio­n that other events provide as a matter of course.

At the same time, the races as always showed the very best of the host country’s scenery and Kiesenhofe­r’s victory especially cut through beyond cycling fans and well beyond the borders of her home country to become one of the stories of the Games. Though the Dutch and Van Aert might disagree, the races were as good a showcase for the sport as it would be possible to have.

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 ??  ?? Kiesenhofe­r puts her head down and rides away to a spectacula­r Olympic gold
Van Vleuten looked to be the strongest rider, but took her eye off the ball
Kiesenhofe­r puts her head down and rides away to a spectacula­r Olympic gold Van Vleuten looked to be the strongest rider, but took her eye off the ball
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 ??  ?? Van Aert was the strongest in the road race, but would eventually be outwitted
Carapaz (l) and McNulty make good their escape in the finale of the men’s road race
Van Aert was the strongest in the road race, but would eventually be outwitted Carapaz (l) and McNulty make good their escape in the finale of the men’s road race
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 ??  ?? Primož Roglč, en route to a gold medal in the men’s time trial event
Primož Roglč, en route to a gold medal in the men’s time trial event
 ??  ?? Van Vleuten finally won her gold medal in the time trial after missing out in the road race
Van Vleuten finally won her gold medal in the time trial after missing out in the road race

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