TOKYO (Reuters) – Finding a chink in the armour of Slovenian Tadej Pogacar proved impossible during three weeks of racing around France and the world’s best riders must now try again in Saturday’s 234km Olympic road race.
Pogacar arrived in Tokyo with an iron grip on the peloton and will be the favourite to take the gold medal on a lumpy course that looks tailor-made for his vast skill set.
The 22-year-old was unbreakable in the Pyrenees and Alps on the way to a second successive Tour de France triumph, so however brutal parts of the Olympic course around Mount Fuji appear it will be unlikely to worry Pogacar.
And while Saturday’s race has a longer list of potential winners than a Grand Tour, Pogacar proved by winning the Liege-Bastonne-Liege classic this year that he can look after himself in the frenetic one-day classics.
“He rides carefree and loves the bike,” his UAE Team Emirates colleague Davide Formolo said during the Tour. “Everything seems easy to him. He wants to win and win, he’s insatiable.”
Even if Pogacar’s gas tank is depleted from his exploits in France, Slovenia have an impressive ‘Plan B’ in the form of 2019 and 2020 Vuelta de Espana winner Primoz Roglic.
Not bad for a nation of two million people.
Roglic abandoned the Tour early after a crash and, if he has recovered physically, the recharged 31-year-old could be ready for a thrilling battle with his team mate.
‘LOOK LIKE CORPSES’
The course starts at Musashinonomori Park and ends at the Fuji International Speedway and features five big ascents, including one on Mount Fuji itself.
But it is the final climb, the Mikuni Pass, after 200km of hard racing that will likely decide the outcome.
If Pogacar’s defences are not eroded by the time they kick up that 7km leg-stinger, averaging 11%, he will be hard to beat.
With less than a week between the Tour ending and the Olympic race, the big question is whether those who made it to Paris have recovered.
“I’ve bumped into a lot of the Tour guys this week and they all look like corpses to be honest,” New Zealand’s George Bennett, another contender for a medal, told Reuters.
“I saw Wout (Van Aert) and he said he could hardly ride his bike for the first few days, but we will know more on Saturday.”
Belgium’s Van Aert, an all-rounder who could be deadly over the last 20 flat kilometres if he not distanced on the final climb, is a serious rival to Pogacar.
“You see how Wout flew in the past few weeks, you can say he’s in the shape of his life,” his young team mate and medal contender Remco Evenepoel said this week.
“He has always said he would work towards his goal and that his Tour would be to prepare for the Games. He’s done that well. He looks sharp and fresh. Wout won’t be afraid of this course.”
As events in Rio proved five years ago, when Belgium’s Greg van Avermaet took advantage of crashes to snatch gold in a thriller, the Olympic road race is wildly unpredictable and tactics often fly out of the window.
If Pogacar’s guard does slip, there will be plenty of riders ready to pounce including 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, who heads a formidable British quartet of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Simon and Adam Yates.
Swiss prodigy Marc Hirschi will also fancy the terrain while Dutchman Bauke Mollema, France’s David Gaudu, Italian great Vincenzo Nibali, Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde and Australian Richie Porte are likely to be in the shake-up when battle commences.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Peter Rutherford)