By David Hunter
Tokyo > Fuij Circuit 232km
A race like no other. With so many factors to consider, my head is about to burst.
Giro > Settimana Ciclistica Italiana – this is the route favoured by most of the Italian team, apart from Nibali. The recent Italian race allowed the team to get some racing in the legs before jetting off to Japan. Moscon, Caruso, Ciccone and Bettiol all looked strong.
2 weeks of the Tour – the Nibali approach. This seems sensible as it gives a good block of racing in the legs and longer to prepare for Tokyo. Simon Yates also did this, but that was due to a nasty crash.
3 weeks of the Tour, but not for GC – the Valverde approach. The Spaniard knows how to peak one week after the Tour, it’s what he normally tries to do for San Sebastian. The 3 weeks gives the legs a huge boost, especially if you’re not going deep on a regular basis. Also using this approach is Van Aert, Fuglsang, Mollema, Higuita, Woods, Hirschi, Gaudu, Dan Martin and a few others.
3 weeks of the Tour going for GC – the Pogačar approach. The winner of the Tour never goes well in San Sebastian. After the Tour they would normally have a celebration, followed by a number of criteriums and press interviews. This didn’t happen this year. Doing well in San Sebastian isn’t important, it’s not the Olympics, the two cannot be compared. Just how deep did Pogačar push himself? He still looked fresh in the last few stages.
No Giro, no Tour – the Adam Yates approach. He’s not raced since Liège, that was on the 25th April. He’ll be very fresh, but will the lack of racing hurt him?
Giro > Belgium Tour – the Remco approach. This has allowed him to travel early to Japan, giving him a slight advantage.
Crash out of the Tour – the Roglič approach. It all depends on how he’s recovered. His legs will still be fresh, but what about his body?
Flying to Japan from Europe takes around 15 hours and then you have to add on the time difference. This means you lose a day and your body has to try and adjust to the change in time zone. The Tour riders flew out on Sunday night, that doesn’t give a lot of time to get the body ready. Then we have the humidity to deal with. The heat isn’t a problem for the riders, but the humidity takes time to get used to. Those who haven’t done the Tour were out here nice and early, those leaving on Sunday are taking a risk.
5 men – Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain.
4 men – Colombia, Denmark, Germany , GB, Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Australia.
Of course, the more men you have the more options it gives you. The teams are small, making controlling the race very difficult, especially given the route. Most riders will look at the final climb and realise it’s too hard for them, they need to get up the road before that point. This will make controlling the race very difficult, particularly for Slovenia. Pogačar starts as the big favourite, but he only has three teammates. The small teams could make this race very unpredictable.
Hot and humid.
The Fuji climb is long and steady, 15km at 5.9%. It goes on for quite a while, but hard to make big gaps among the top riders.
The Mikuni Pass is 6.8km at 10.4%, it is awful, especially when you factor in the heat and humidity.
This is not a standard race. We have a tiny field, only 128 riders, about to take on a hugely demanding route, but around 40 of these riders will be out the back door as soon as the pace is raised. This is very different from any other race in the cycling calendar.
The big climb is too hard for most riders, most of the peloton will want to get up the road before this point, which is going to make the racing on the crazy side. With no race radios those who can read a race will be worth their weight in gold. Of the teams with five riders the strongest are Belgium, Spain and Italy. These teams have a slight advantage over the teams with four riders, but can they make it count? This race is all about making sure you have someone up the road, letting the others take it easy in the bunch. The issue is that all the big teams will try to do this, getting in the break isn’t going to be easy.
Once the race settles down we’ll see attacks on Fuji Sanroku. This climb is hard enough to make a selection, there will be quite a few teams interested in pushing the pace. Let’s be honest, if teams wait for the Mikuni Pass, there aren’t many who’ll be able to follow Pogačar. His strength will have a large impact on the tactics used in the race, all teams will want to get riders away on the easier climb. I think we’ll see a very strong group get away on Fuji Sanroku and I’m not sure the main peloton will catch them.
The Mikuni Pass will obviously have a large say on who wins the gold medal, it is a ridiculously hard climb. Cresting with 33km to go does give some hope that if they get dropped they might be able to re-join the front group, but there is no guarantee this happens.
Teams will go into the race with predetermined tactics, but who responds best in the race will win the race. In this heat riders will find they have fewer matches to burn. It’s all about saving energy and attacking at the right moment, and not waiting for Pogačar to drop everyone on the Mikuni Pass!
I’m joined by James Knox of Team GB to discuss the race.
Belgium – they go in with Evenepoel and Van Aert as their two big options. Van Aert is clearly the man in form, but how much does he have left in the tank? He might not have been trying to win the yellow jersey, but he did expend a huge amount of energy in the final two weeks of the race. The final climb is too hard for him, the climbers will be able to drop him, but he could return on the descent, but no one will want to take him to the line. Evenepoel is a great option, but how will he match up to the riders coming out of the Tour? The distance could also be a problem for the youngster, he hasn’t done many races like this. He did win San Sebastian back in 2019, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience in races this long. There might be a couple of doubts about both riders but the Belgians are in an excellent position with Remco to attack and Wout to wait for a sprint.
Italy – they look good, but not great. Nibali isn’t at his best, I don’t see him as a genuine contender. Moscon, Caruso and Bettiol are all strong riders, but I think the race will be too hard for them. Their best option is try and get into a breakaway, they need to start the big climb with an advantage over the bunch.
Slovenia – they arrive with Pogačar and Roglič, not a bad position to be in! Pogačar was obviously amazing at the Tour, but how much energy does he have left? That is the question everyone is asking. He’ll love the big climb, there aren’t many better than him on something that steep, and he also has the fastest finish of all the climbers. How Roglič gets on depends on his recovery from his injuries sustained in his TDF crash. He approached the race in brilliant condition, he’ll still have that condition, but crucially there won’t be any fatigue in his legs. They might have one less man than some nations, but the Slovenians have to start as the favourites to take home gold.
Adam Yates – his route into this race is unique, it could be genius. He’s not raced since Liège, is that going to be a problem? We saw him start the season in brilliant form, but as the weeks went on he lost some of his edge, Yates is a rider who normally goes well at the start of the block of racing. He’s been over in Japan for a while now, he knows the climbs and is used to the humidity, an important factor. He’ll have Thomas, Geoghegan Hart and his brother to help him, this is a strong team. Yates doesn’t have a great sprint, he’ll need to attack on the big climb and see what happens. Remember, he is one of the best in the world on steep slopes.
Max Schachmann – the big climb is too hard for him, he’ll need to either get up the road or hope to re-join the front group on the run for home.
Alejandro Valverde – can he really win gold at 41? He used the Tour as preparation for this race, only going deep in the Andorra stage, and he nearly won that. In his favour is his record in races like this, and his ability to cope with the heat and humidity. The problem is that there are now better climbers than him, whereas he was the best climber when he won the worlds in 2018. I think he’ll get a medal, just not a gold one.
Bauke Mollema – a rider who usually goes very well in San Sebastian, he knows how to manage his efforts to come out of the Tour with amazing legs. His stage win in France was a reminder of his strengths, a great climber but an even better tactician. The Dutch have 5 riders, they have an advantage over most other teams. Mollema will look to attack early, it’s his only chance of winning gold.
Marc Hirschi – the curious case of Marc Hirschi. Last year he was the best in the world, this year he’s been a shadow of that rider. We had DSM terminate his contract, there were plenty of rumours going around saying that he wouldn’t tell the team his whereabouts before the 2020 Tour de France. The team didn’t say much, but it’s more what they didn’t say. Hirschi denied any wrongdoing, but it clearly had a big impact on his performances. At the start of the year it was because of dental surgery, but his results have been nowhere near good enough this season. Will we suddenly see him return to 2020 levels? Nothing in this sport surprises me anymore.
This is the hardest race in the calendar to predict. I think the winner will have started the Tour de France, but it won’t be the yellow jersey. I’ll take a win for Primož Roglič, I hear he has fully recovered from his crash and is looking very strong.
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