By Martyn Herman
TOKYO (Reuters) – A brutally tough Olympic road race course wore down most of the 130 riders who set off from Musashinonomori Park in stifling heat on Saturday but not gold medallist Richard Carapaz who trains on an Ecuadorean volcano.
The 28-year-old mountain man, known in the men’s professional peloton as La Locomotora by dint of his relentless engine, shrugged off everything the elite field could throw at home before launching a solo bid for glory.
Better known as a climbing specialist with his Ineos Grenadiers team, Carapaz powered home like a Formula One car on the Fuji International Speedway to leave his rivals trailing a minute behind him in his tracks.
It was a phenomenal effort at the end of a six-hour 234-km ride from Tokyo’s outer suburbs into the majestic climbs around Mount Fuji — culminating in the eye-watering Mikuni Pass where the 20% gradients saw rider after rider shelled out the back.
Slovenian phenomenon Tadej Pogacar, who won his second consecutive Tour de France this year, thought he could crack Carapaz on that hellish stretch of tarmac. But he had not counted on the South American’s iron core.
Carapaz led a successful chase down of Pogacar and then on the next climb, a short burst up the Kagosaka Pass 21km from the end, he and American Brandon McNulty launched their attack.
They accelerated away to gain two minutes on a lightning fast descent but whereas McNulty faltered 5km from the finish line as Belgian Wout Van Aert led a chasing pack to within 14 seconds of the leading duo, Carapaz rode off into the distance.
It was a masterful performance and will go down in Ecuador’s sporting folklore as he delivered only the country’s second Olympic gold medal after Jefferson Perez’s victory in the race walking event at Atlanta in 1996.
Carapaz had already won a Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s crown jewels, and was third in the Tour de France which ended last weekend, but he said an Olympic gold was “incredible”.
“To see your flag as the top one, and to have this medal with me. It’s sensational,” Carapaz, who spent the early months of this year riding the gravel roads on the side of the Cotopaxi Volcano in the Andes, told reporters.
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction. I have worked very hard, and then it works out in a way that makes history for me and for my country. To be able to be a part of the history of my country is very important.”
It was a stunning performance and there were few complaints from the riders he left in his wake including silver medallist Van Aert who accepted the better man won.
“Carapaz stayed ahead very well. We knew he would be very, very strong, and he deserved the win,” the Belgian, who pipped Pogacar to silver in a sprint finish said.
Britain’s Adam Yates, who was part of the forlorn chase of Carapaz and finished ninth, paid tribute to his Ineos Grenadiers team mate.
“It’s super for him. To be honest, I’m not sure where he won it off the front. It was a sneaky move but obviously worked really well and showed he’s come out of the Tour flying,” he said. “Massive congratulations to him.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)