Yamanakako, Yamanashi Pref. – When it was announced July 8 that domestic spectators would not be able to attend the Olympic Games, attention immediately shifted to the remaining few events that would be open to the public, including the cycling road race.
One-hundred-and-thirty riders left Tokyo’s Musashinonomori Park at 11 a.m. this morning to compete in the men’s road race. The 234-kilometer-long course ran from the on the western edge of Tokyo to the finish at Fuji International Speedway, with 4,865 metres of climbing en route. At the start line, all eyes were on recent Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, who flew to Tokyo from France following his victory in Paris last Sunday, but it was Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz who eventually took gold in 6:05:26.
The race began with a controlled rolling start, allowing fans to see the cyclists traveling at relatively slow speeds through the Tokyo suburbs and for the racers to take in sites like Fuchu’s Ookunitama Shrine before the action really began. TV coverage showed thousands of fans gathered and cheering along the sides of the road to watch the race in Tokyo’s suburbs, despite the state of emergency.
The first 70 kilometers of the course was a relatively flat run out of Tokyo. An initial group of about eight riders broke away almost immediately after the race properly began, soon picking up a significant lead over the main peloton that would be maintained for the better part of 130 kilometers. As the kilometers tumbled and Mount Fuji drew nearer, the riders entered the course’s mountainous section, headed for the race’s high point at Fuji Sanroku (1,431 meters).
Near Lake Yamanakako, one of the Fuji Five Lakes, fans assembled along the roadside from as early as 8 a.m., hoping to get a brief glimpse of the peloton as it made its high-velocity pass through the area. Though not overly-crowded by any stretch of the imagination, a large cohort of fans turned up to watch the race at the scenic lake, spreading out along the lake shore and up the mountain roads to watch the cyclists climb.
Italian fan Gabriele Bortolotti spent the night camping near the lake in preparation for the race. “This was the first time I’ve ever lived in a city that’s hosted the Olympics, and this was the one opportunity I had to see an event, so I had to be here.”
Draped in an Italian flag, he fit right in with the crowds of international and Japanese supporters who had made the pilgrimage to see the race. Fans clad in colorful cycling Lycra put up national flags along the course to encourage their teams. Some spectators had cycled the 100-plus kilometers from Tokyo that morning to watch the race from the side of the road.
“I wasn’t super keen about the idea of the Olympics in general but it’s very exciting to see top tier athletes performing,” said Kasumi Mizoguchi, who was watching a cycling race for the first time. “It was emotional seeing all the cyclists come up the road. Someone in our group burst into tears as the main group of riders approached.”
Ahead of time, the Olympic Committee discouraged fans from watching the race in person and urged them to watch online or on TV instead. That sentiment carried forward at the local level with the city of Yamanakako closing many of its public parking lots to discourage fans from congregating. A temporary car park that was supposed to be set up for the event remained closed. This seemed to put little dent in the crowd’s enthusiasm for the race — those who made it were in high spirits, cheering and whooping the cyclists up the road.
The heat and humidity posed a clear challenge to the cyclists throughout the race, with riders frequently dropping back to team cars to collect water bottles and stay hydrated. The temperature in the Tokyo suburbs reached 34C during the early parts of the race and though the mountain section of the course was significantly cooler, it largely took place under the full strength of the afternoon sun.
The pace really began to pick up with the climb over Yamanashi Prefecture’s Mikuni Pass, with a little under 40 km left to the finish line. Multiple attacks came in quick succession from the race’s best cyclists, and it was here that Tour de France third place finisher Carapaz took a lead that wouldn’t be broken, despite the best efforts of Belgium’s Wout van Art and a group of ferocious persuants. It would be Carapaz that took gold at the finish line at the Fuji International Speedway, after a brilliant final attack on Brandon McNulty (USA), winning Ecuador’s second ever gold medal at the Olympic Games. Van Art and Pogacar surged to the front of the chasing pack to claim silver and bronze, respectively.
Two cyclists tested positive for COVID-19 and had to pull out of the race beforehand, including German cyclist Simon Geschke, who tested positive the day before the race.
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