Breaking Down The Brilliant Win at the Men's Olympic Road Race

How Richard Carapaz thwarted the favorites to bag one of the biggest wins of his career

Richard Carapaz took the win at the Men’s Olympic Road Race over the weekend on a brutal course in the shadow of the majestic Mt. Fuji, with a vintage Carapaz mix of strength and strategic nuance. The Ecuadorian took gold ahead of pre-race favorites Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogacar, who were relegated to sprinting from the chase group over a minute in arrears.

Carapaz’s solo victory was built by following a fantastic Brandon McNulty attack with 25-kilometers to go. The South American star recognized something that the other big names didn’t; that McNulty, a relatively unknown UAE domestique, was one of the strongest riders in the race. Carapaz and McNulty worked perfectly to hold onto their lead, even as it evaporated in the final few meters on the Fuji Speedway. Just when it looked like the Van Aert-led chase group would overcome the leading duo with 4km-to-go, Carapaz recognized it was now or never and laid down an all-or-nothing attack that dropped McNulty and broke the will of the chasers.

After pulling out close to a minute in the final few kilometers, Carapaz had time to sit up and celebrate as he came over the finish line to win an incredibly important Olympic Gold medal for his home country of Ecuador, while Van Aert and Pogacar were forced to sprint it out for the remaining medals.

Race Notebook:

168km: The early breakaway has built up a massive advantage of close to 20 minutes, while Slovenia and defending champion Greg van Avermaet set pace on the front of the peloton to keep the gap close enough that they can reel them in on the difficult circuits towards the finish.

51.5km: Eddie Dunbar, Vincenzo Nibali and Remco Evenepoel attack and get a gap over the peloton. This move is impressive and exciting at the moment, but if we step back, it doesn’t make a ton of sense, since there is still a massive peloton behind with many willing chasers and the hardest climb of the race coming up in around 10kms.

48.4km: The leading trio are reeled in and Belgium has wasted a massive resource in Evenepoel far too early.

39.3km: Pogacar’s Slovenia team takes over at the front from Italy and Jan Trankik and Primoz Roglic drill it into the base of the climb for Pogacar. The pace is extremely high and really strings the group out. As the climb proper begins, Belgium takes the front for Wout van Aert, who is sitting confidently in second place.

38.8km: This high pace is already breaking up the large peloton and big names like Tao Geoghegan Hart and Roglic are being spat out the back. It might seem strange that a non-climbers team would be the ones making it hard on the climb, but it is shedding key support riders for faster climbers like Pogacar and deterring attacks.

37.4km: Pogacar attacks extremely early on the climb. It would be almost impossible to stick a solo move from this point, but if even it fails, it will thing down the large peloton and isolate the riders like Van Aert and Bettiol and make it an even fight on the run-in to the finish.

36.9km: Pogacar is joined by Mike Woods from Canada and Brandon McNulty from the USA, which is key because McNulty’s day job is setting pace for Pogacar at UAE, and he doesn’t skip a beat here. He slots right in at the front and starts working for Pogacar. Behind, Van Aert has lost all of his Belgian teammates and is setting an impressive pace on the front of the chase group behind.

36.4km: The Woods, McNulty, and Pogacar group has pulled the gap out to close to 20-seconds, while Van Aert seriously increases the pace behind and blows up the chase group. Only Bettiol, Carapaz, and a few select others can go with him. This is incredibly impressive since he won the biggest sprint stage of the year just five days prior and has Carapaz, the third-place overall finisher at the Tour, on the limit.

33.7km: Wout has closed the gap enough that Carapaz, Uran, Kwiatkowski, and Bettiol can jump up to them. Wout can’t go with them, but it ultimately doesn’t matter since once the chase group makes contact with the front, they all start looking at each other and the pace comes off. This means the Van Aert group just has to keep the pace steady and get close enough to close the gap on the descent. However, the position he is currently in (off the back) means he will miss any potential moves that go on the climb.

33.2km: Aware of this risk, Van Aert quickly closes the gap and responds to a Mike Woods attack towards the top of Mikuni pass. However, he can’t close it down and Woods gets a gap over the descent. This shouldn’t bother anyone too much since Woods isn’t a particularly quick descender, and they should be able to reel him in before the final climb.

29.3km: As expected, Woods is reeled in before the next climb. At this point, I am starting to worry that Van Aert is taking on too much responsibility. As the fastest rider, the onus is on him to weld the race back together and force a sprint, but he needs to be more selective about the moves he works to close.

29km-25km: After the catch is made, a flurry of attacks follows, which Van Aert then also has to close down. This is why leaving Woods dangling a bit longer could have been helpful to him.

25km: McNulty attacks for the third time in the last 12kms and nobody, except Carapaz, seems to take him seriously or even notice his move.

24.9km: McNulty is an extremely powerful rider, and his attack immediately opens a gap. Carapaz is going all-in to bridge up while we can see the others behind looking around and seeing if anyone else is going to respond.

24.2km: As the climb starts, the leading duo already have a 15-second gap with no serious chase behind.

23.4km: Helping the leading duo is the fact that they have trade teammates in the group behind. Kwiatkowski and Adam Yates are on Ineos with Carapaz and Pogacar is on UAE with McNulty, so none of these riders are going to get to the front and pull them back. Instead, they will just try to attack to bridge up solo, but when Kwiatkowski tries this, Pogacar chases him down and then refuses to pull through. This creates a stop-start rhythm that significantly slows the group down.

21.2km: As they crest the final climb, Kagosaka pass, Mike Woods attacks again but can only get a small gap over the chase group. We can see Van Aert parked on the front, while everyone else is simply sitting behind and relying on him to pull everything back together. At this point, the race is essentially over and we know the winner will come from the leading two.

15.5km: By the bottom of the descent, the gap has gone out to 42-seconds, and McNulty and Carapaz are working incredibly well together. We can see that due to their size difference, Carapaz is getting a great draft from McNulty, while McNulty is still eating tons of air while on Carapaz’s wheel. This will give Carapaz a huge advantage when they hit the final few kms.

14.9km: Bettiol cramps up and literally has to stop pedaling and pull over. Van Aert is still the only rider putting in significant work on the front and the gap has grown by four seconds over .5kms.

11.3km: Van Aert finally realizes that it is now or never and dramatically increases the pace on the front of the chase group as they hit a steep, but short, rise. He immediately splits up the group and decreases the gap down to 29-seconds.

7.8km: Van Aert gets the gap down to 13-seconds and the win is actually back in play here. However, we can see that when he finally asks Adam Yates to do some work, everyone starts looking around to see if someone else will take up the chase.

5.8km: Carapaz sees the chases closing in and knows it is now or never, so he increases the pace on a small rise on the Fuji Speedway and drops McNulty, who just simply hits a wall. Van Aert is still chasing behind after failing to get anyone else to take serious pulls, but the gap has increased to 17-seconds and they have squandered their chance to catch Carapaz.

4.6km: Woods attacks with Uran and Gaudu and actually distances Van Aert slightly, but he has waited too long and this attack will be the nail in the coffin of any cohesion in this group.

4.1km: The attacks have allowed Carapaz to pull out his gap to 31-seconds and we can see the pain in the face in both him and the chase group behind. This has been a brutal race and even the small rises on the speedway are taking their toll and shredding the chase group.

Finish: Carapaz crosses the finish line with a massive minute+ advantage and takes time to celebrate this massive victory.

When the chase group gets to the sprint, we can see why nobody was willing to work with Van Aert. He and Pogacar easily crush the others in their sprint for the remaining medals, with Van Aert just barely winning his picture-perfect bike throw (his second of the season after Amstel Gold).

Nine Takeaways:

1) Carapaz’s win is monumentally important for both him and his home country of Ecuador. After coming in third place in the Tour de France, he rallied to win what will likely be the biggest win of his career. The win will resonate in his home country since it is only their second-ever Olympic gold medal and only third-ever medal.

  • Carapaz won this race in peak vintage Carapaz fashion. He used both his tactical nous and his raw strength to attack the favorites at just the right time and use the mismatched incentives in the group behind to leverage the result. While favorites like Remco Evenepoel, Vincenzo Nibali, and Wilco Kelderman were attacking needlessly in the run-in to Mikuni Pass, Carapaz sat in and didn’t show himself until he attacked with the USA’s Brandon McNulty after the summit. This attack set him up for the win since it meant the group of favorites behind contained Wout van Aert, who nobody in their right mind would pull to the finish line.

2) Wout van Aert’s second place is a great result, especially after he worked to close nearly every gap in the final 30-kilometers on a course that didn’t particularly suit him. But, it highlights the issues he will face in one-day races for the next few seasons.

  • The strong Belgian squad burned Evenepoel far too early, and if they could have gotten him over Mikuni pass with Van Aert, they almost certainly win the race.

  • The result was almost a mirror-image of the 2020 World Road Race Championships where Julian Alaphilippe won solo after attacking in the finale and counting on nobody in the chasing group working with a rider who is almost guaranteed to win the sprint.

  • This will continue to happen over and over again to Wout in one-day races until he realizes that the only remedy is to be the rider who goes on the attack first.

3) After re-watching the race and knowing the outcome, it was hard not to feel like Van Aert put in far too much work closing down moves like Woods’ attack on the descent of Mikuni pass, which left him unable to respond to McNulty’s winning move before the final climb.

4) But, on the flip side, perhaps Van Aert never would have marked McNulty and his lack of star power was ultimately what made the move successful.

  • Carapaz was the only rider paying attention to him when he wound up for his third attack, and by taking him seriously, he was able to get the perfect breakaway companion and ultimately, win the race.

5) Tadej Pogacar’s third place overall and close second in the bunch sprint behind one of the best sprinters in the world, Wout van Aert, shows us just how versatile and impressive the two-time Tour winner is.

  • With his one-day Monument win at Liege earlier this year and this result, he is doing things that no other multi-Tour winner has done since Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault (Armstrong never won a significant one-day race after his first Tour win).

  • This result is even more impressive when we consider he flew over later than the others due to sponsor engagements in Paris after his Tour win, and the fact that he presumably trained and peaked for the Tour, not a one-day race around the world a week afterward.

  • It also isn’t a great piece of evidence for those who pointed to Pogacar’s failure to drop his rivals in the third week of the Tour as a sign that he could be vulnerable in the future. While he was still unable to drop the other favorites in the finale, he was clearly feeling strong in the final sprint.

6) The interesting nuances of international races really came into play here. Despite not being teammates on the day, Pogacar, Yates, and Kwiatkowski were clearly not interested in chasing down the leading duo of McNulty and Carapaz, which speaks to an open secret in international racing that trade teammates almost always colluding with each other since there are almost always rich bonuses written into their trade team contracts, of which a portion can easily be kicked back to a helpful teammate.

7) In an ironic twist, an Ineos rider wins one of the year’s biggest races, but in one of only two races when he isn’t wearing the team colors.

  • Meanwhile, Ineos’ proxy national team, the Great Britain squad, looked a far cry from their former glory. Adam Yates finished in 9th place but wasn’t able to attack with Carapaz and McNulty, which he would have had to do if he wanted a chance at medals, and Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas, two of Ineos’ stars, continued their Tour struggles by failing to finish. Additionally, Thomas crashed hard early in the race, which continued an undeniable trend of him hitting the deck in nearly every race in which he was taken the start line this season.

8) Just watching the race on TV it was easy to see just how difficult the course was. Watching riders like Michał Kwiatkowski, Jakob Fuglsang, and Max Schachmann get spit on the back on the flat(ish) run-in to the finish showed us how brutal the race was, which is what made it so great.

  • No rider in the top-10 had a single teammate with them, which turned the race into a rare stripped-down version of professional cycling where the strongest riders have to attack each other without the luxury of teammates to close down gaps.

  • In my opinion, this race was yet another example of why stripped-down international racing is so good. Instead of a powerful team like DQS chasing down Carapaz (i.e. 2021 Liege), we got wide-open one-on-one racing.

9) Once again, despite theories to the contrary (Max Schachmann skipped the Tour to prepare for this race), the Tour de France proved to be the ideal preparation for the Olympic Road Race.

  • Since the introduction of professional riders in 1996, every Olympic Road Champion has raced the Tour de France prior to the games, and this edition was no different. Every rider in the top-eight completed the Tour, and watching Brandon Mcnulty and Mike Woods ride to top-six places while superstars like Alberto Bettiol quite literally couldn’t pedal their bikes in the last 10-kilometers should be all the evidence we need that racing the Tour is a required prerequisite for an Olympic Gold Medal.

Women’s Road Race Breakdown coming later today/early tomorrow…