The Tokyo Olympic cycling program started with a bang Saturday.
Richard Carapaz won gold for Ecuador after a frantic finale of the men’s road race, attacking with the Arizonan rider Brandon McNulty with 25 kilometers to go before dropping the 23-year-old in the final.
- Carapaz bounces from Tour de France podium to Olympic gold
- McNulty lights up final with standout ride
Tour de France aces Wout van Aert (Belgium) and Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) took second and third steps on the podium, while Geraint Thomas (Great Britain) had yet more bad luck, crashing early and later abandoning with injury.
Here’s what the stars said after the Tokyo Olympic road race:
Richard Carapaz (Ecuador): Gold medal
Richard Carapaz rode an attacking race and was rewarded with gold. The Ecuadorian countered McNulty’s attack at 25km to go and worked with the American to build a substantial lead.
Carapaz sensed the strong chase group was closing on him and McNulty as the action hit the Speedway circuit. Knowing that he didn’t have the speed to succeed in a sprint, Carapaz took the initiative and attacked at 6km to go, dropping McNulty and time trialing to a solo victory.
Carapaz’s victory backs up a sensational month that also saw him finish third at the Tour de France.
“I went to the Tour with the podium on my mind,” he said. “I made it and I came here with the feeling that I could achieve something special. I won a gold medal and even when I crossed the line I couldn’t believe it. I think it’s the happiest moment of my life.
“I think McNulty was a great companion in the breakaway, because he’s very, very good on even terrain,” Carapaz continued. “We were able to maintain that advantage that we had, 20 or 30 seconds that separated us from the rest. And then of course, coming here down to the circuit, I simply continued on that level and that’s how I won.
“To my country, the truth is you have to believe, no? I have worked so hard to get here. I’m here, I’m enjoying — it’s something so big for me. And simply ‘thank you’ for the support which truthfully really helped me get here.”
Wout van Aert (Belgium): Silver medal
Wout van Aert was a victim of his own strength Saturday.
Van Aert was repeatedly pressured through the final of the race as his rivals feared the Belgian’s fast finish. The Jumbo-Visma ace withstood the pace on the steep Minuki climb and was then forced to lead the chase when McNulty and Carapaz charged away.
Although Van Aert was pushed into doing much of the work in the chase group, he still had the kick to outsprint Pogačar in the chase for the podium and seal a silver medal.
He will now be resting hard ahead of Wenesday’s time trial, where he is one of the top favorites for gold.
“I always race to win but today there was one guy stronger,” he said. “It was hard to arrive in the group and play my sprint, but I managed to do it and I’m really happy with silver. It’s really special to take a medal in the Olympics, even though I aimed for gold, but I guess it was the best possible result today.
“I was the fastest finisher and you are always looked at. I knew in advance that this was going to be a difficult situation. Carapaz was the only one to stay ahead and was very strong. A medal was the highest achievable for me.”
Michael Woods (Canada): 5th
Michael Woods was as aggressive as ever Saturday.
Woods was quick to counter the first attack by Pogačar and McNulty and he continued to force the pace over the plateau and descent that followed the Minuki Pass.
Like many of the climbers that survived the selection to make the front group, it was in Woods’ interest to distance the sprint threats of van Aert and Pogačar. Woods kept trying to force a split but to no avail as Carapaz stayed away and the lower steps of the podium were decided by a sprint.
The Canadian’s kick to fifth out of the eight-strong chase group may suggest he has faster legs than he likes to believe however.
“I tried to race as aggressively as possible. I needed to get a gap to get a medal. I attacked as much as I could, because I was not going to beat van Aert in the sprint.
“I tried everything, but van Aert was shutting down everything. He was just too strong. I’m kind of satisfied. No medal unfortunately, but I raced a good race, so I can’t be disappointed.”
Brandon McNulty (USA): 6th
Brandon McNulty surprised the favorites with a series of attacks through the final. He first went away with UAE-Emirates teammate Pogačar on the Minuki Pass and accelerated again around 15km later to draw out race winner Carapaz.
McNulty used his big TT motor to drag the duo away from the chase group and he looked set to fight Carapaz for gold. However, McNulty’s legs popped when the Ecuadorian accelerated at 6km to go, leaving him to hang tough for sixth.
The time trial Wednesday will see McNulty have another shot at the podium, where he will be full of confidence.
23-year-old @BrandonMcNult rides to a 6th place finish in his first #OlympicGames!#CyclingRoad | #Tokyo2020 | @Olympics | #Olympics | #WeChampionCycling https://t.co/AACNPvSIvt pic.twitter.com/MK9HJysoa6
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) July 24, 2021
“Wow. It’s crazy. I think within the USA Cycling program, every year and every generation is getting closer to being kind of at the top of the sport. It’s a big honor for me to be the first big result of the Olympics in a while. It’s super, super big for me.”
Geraint Thomas (Great Britain): DNF
Another race, another crash for Geraint Thomas.
Thomas was caught up in a crash with his teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart and a handful of others after just 80km to go and was spotted with heavily ripped clothing and large patches of road rash. The Welshman struggled on for around 100km before calling it quits with 60km remaining.
The abandon continues Thomas’ incident-riddled career. Thomas saw his yellow jersey hopes hit the tarmac at this month’s Tour de France and had been forced to abandon the 2020 Giro d’Italia due to a crash just 10 months before that.
Thomas will be hoping for better luck in his challenge for the podium in Wednesday’s time trial.
All good with me. Thanks for the messages!! Think I must have done something bad in a previous life🤦♂️ Freak crash, Tao lost his front wheel and decked it in front of me. I had nowhere to go, other than the floor as well🤷♂️
— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) July 24, 2021
“There was just a little metal ridge in the middle of the road. Tao hit that and I was on his wheel, his bike was just there, and I had nowhere to go. I hit the floor, landed on my right side, on the same shoulder I did in the Tour. Luckily it stayed in [i.e. didn’t dislocate] – that’s one positive.
“I’m just beat up and I hit my ankle awkwardly so that was giving me a bit of gip. I’ve been worse, but I’ve been a lot better as well.
“I was just thinking ‘not again – why’. I Tweeted that maybe I’ve done something bad in a past life, I don’t know. This month just isn’t my month. It’s just frustrating because I’ve put in a lot of hard work and sacrifice this year, but sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it.”