Richard Carapaz won Ecuador’s first cycling gold medal after a breathtaking solo effort during the climax to the men’s road race, while Geraint Thomas’s quest for an Olympic title came to a premature end following another crash.
While Carapaz, the 2019 Giro d’Italia winner, celebrated after dropping the American Brandon McNulty with six kilometres of the race left, the medal hopes of Britain’s Thomas vanished after he struggled to recover from a crash after 70km that also involved his teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart.
It was a cruel end to the race for Thomas, who landed hard on the same right side he injured in two spills during the Tour de France, denying him the chance to banish memories of yet another accident that ended his medal challenge in Rio five years ago.
Carapaz, who finished third at the Tour last weekend, when he was part of the same Ineos Grenadiers team as Thomas and Geoghegan Hart, described the win as “the best moment”.
“The truth is it is an incredible moment that words can’t describe,” he said after securing gold, only Ecuador’s second in Olympic history following Jefferson Pérez’s 1996 race walk victory. “To my country, the truth is you have to believe. I have worked so hard to get here. It’s something so big for me.”
The tightly bunched chasing group of seven riders arrived 67 seconds behind Carapaz, with the Belgian, Wout van Aert, outsprinting Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar, who was clearly still affected after winning his second Tour de France title in a row, to claim silver.
Thomas’s race was effectively over after Geoghegan Hart got his wheel caught in a groove on the road, sending the British pair crashing to the tarmac. Although both riders rejoined the peloton, Thomas abandoned the race with almost 60km to go, his thoughts inevitably turning to Wednesday’s time trial.
Despite the frustration of seeing his challenge denied by another freak accident, Thomas reviewed the day with an admirable sense of perspective, and there was no intimation that Geoghegan Hart had been at fault.
“I’m feeling beat up, but not too bad,” the Welshman said. “I’ve felt worse. I landed on my right side again, which wasn’t ideal, and the muscles and everything were in spasm almost.”
“It’s a normal sort of crash thing. It’s just disappointing, such a freak thing. Tao slipped on a bit of a metal, a metal ridge along the middle of the road. I was on his wheel with nowhere to go, and just went straight down myself.
“It’s disappointing after all the hard work and sacrifice this year, especially after the Tour with all that happened there. I live to fight another day, and just try and rest up, recover and try to give Wednesday another big go.”
The biggest one-day win of Carapaz’s career looked unlikely when Pogacar attempted to leave the rest of the leading group in his wake during the climb up the unforgiving gradients of the Mikuni Pass with 30km of the 234km race to go.
The Slovenian briefly looked as if his gamble would pay off, only for Carapaz and McNulty to break clear and build a lead of more than 40 seconds inside the last 20km.
In the end, the gap between the Ecuadorian and the chasing group gave him a more emphatic victory than had seemed possible just before the riders reached Fuji International Speedway circuit for the last time, after 4,865 metres of climbing in the unrelenting heat and humidity that has quickly become a Tokyo 2020 talking point.
“This race has been a war of attrition,” said British Cycling’s performance director, Stephen Park. “It’s been very hot, very humid, and will take riders a reasonable period of time to recover. It’s about trying to minimise the damage and give ourselves the best chance of rest, which was definitely the best option.”
It was a reasonable analysis of a day of disappointment for the British men, with Adam Yates finishing ninth and his twin, Simon, in 17th place. Hopes for a British road race medal now rest with Lizzie Deignan, who will come up against her perennial Dutch rivals Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos in the women’s event on Sunday.
Bradley Wiggins described Carapaz’s victory as a “phenomenal” achievement in a group “packed full of superstars” and on a blistering day that tested even the most accomplished climbers.
“It was man against man,” said Wiggins, who is in Japan as a pundit for Eurosport. “The field was absolutely decimated. It just shows you how severe it was. I’m looking down, there’s guys on the floor, it’s been a severe road course.”
Carapaz slapped his handlebars in celebration as he crossed the line to an unusual sight here – crowds of delighted fans. While spectators have been kept away from events in Tokyo and other areas, the ban does not extend to Shizuoka prefecture, which hosted the road race.
As many as 11,000 Japanese fans were there to greet him at the finish, some having braved the heat for the best part of a day before the riders appeared, although heavy cloud meant they were denied a view of nearby Mount Fuji.