OYAMA, Japan >> Richard Carapaz rode away from the biggest names in cycling to win the Olympic road race Saturday before one of the few crowds at the Tokyo Games, giving Ecuador just its third medal ever and the first of any color in the sport.
Embracing his nickname of “The Locomotive,” Carapaz powered away from American breakaway buddy Brandon McNulty as they approached the finish at Fuji International Speedway. Carapaz was far enough ahead at the line that he was able to slap his handlebars in celebration and mug for the cameras, sticking his tongue out in playful disbelief.
“The truth is this is the best moment,” Carapaz said. “The truth is it is an incredible moment that words can’t describe.”
The chasing group rounded the corner in sight of him at the finish line, then played a game of cat-and-mouse for the other two medals. Belgian star Wout van Aert, who did everything he could to pull back Carapaz on the run-in to the finish, was rewarded for the effort by edging Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar in a photo finish.
Carapaz, who finished third at the Tour six days ago, was given merely an outsider’s chance on what was widely considered one of the toughest courses in Olympic history. But with just one teammate on the start line, he perfectly played off some of the other powerhouse teams, ultimately getting his tactics just right when it mattered the most.
The only other Olympic medals ever won by his small South American nation have come in race walking. Jefferson Perez captured gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games and added a silver medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
“To my country, the truth is you have to believe, no?” Carapaz said. “I have worked so hard to get here. I’m here, I’m enjoying — it’s something so big for me. And simply thank you for the support which truthfully really helped me get here.”
Dutch rider Bauke Mollema was fourth and Canadian Michael Woods fifth after launching a failed attack of his own, while McNulty finished sixth in one of the best finishes by an American since Alexi Grewal won the 1984 gold medal.
The ban on spectators for this Summer Olympics did not extend past Tokyo, and that meant thousands of them — wearing sun hats and waving fans — turned up at the speedway for the finish. There was still a cap of 50% of capacity, but that left room for about 11,000 fans overlooking one of the longest straightaways in motorsports.
How eager were they to get a rare glimpse of these Olympics, especially after a year’s delay? Many showed up seven hours before riders were expected to reach them, spending almost the entire time baking in the sweltering sun.
Thousands more lined the route. At one point, traditional drummers provided a roadside soundtrack.
Once the race began it was defending Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet, who triumphed in stunning fashion along Copacabana Beach five years ago, going to the front for Belgium. He set a punishing pace through the foothills of Mt. Fuji, sacrificing his own ambitions to position van Aert and fellow teammate Remco Evenepoel for a run at gold.
Slovenia also pushed the tempo as it tried to set up Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, two of the prerace favorites.
Another rider with medal aspirations, Britain’s Geraint Thomas, crashed hard near the base of the first climb. His shoulder bloodied with road rash, the 2018 Tour de France winner eventually dropped out with 60 kilometers to go.
The peloton began to thin as it climbed the lower slopes of Mt. Fuji, the searing heat and humidity coupled with the brutal pace ejecting riders right off the back. But the real fireworks began as it headed up the steep slopes of Mikuni Pass, where gradients up to 17% left dozens more riders with anguished faces awash in sweat and grime.
Pogacar finally launched an attack, and initially only two riders could go with him: Woods, a former runner and one of the breakout stars of the Tour, and the 23-year-old McNulty, who had been overlooked by just about everyone.
The trio was caught before the summit, though, and a dozen contenders were left to mix it up for the medals.
Carapaz wound up riding all the way to the top step of the podium.