A couple of weeks after helping Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar win the Tour de France, 23-year-old American Brandon McNulty nearly stole the show Saturday in the men's cycling road race.
The final bow, though, went to Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, a powerhouse rider in the sport's grand tours who was recently featured in a Netflix documentary.
Over a hot day in the Japanese countryside, the demanding course of 145.4 miles from Musashinonomori Park to Fuji International Speedway took its toll on many of the best riders in the world. But McNulty joined Pogacar and Canadian Michael Woods on a short-lived breakaway on the day's most demanding climb, then teamed with Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, recently featured in a Netflix documentary, to build a lead of more than 40 seconds in the final 10 miles of the race.
But the chase group of six riders, including Pogacar, 2016 silver medalist Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark and ferocious finisher Wout van Aert of Belgium, slowly whittled away that lead, and Carapaz raced away from the American on a short climb in the last five miles and led by more than 30 seconds as the race reached its conclusion at Fuji International Speedway. McNulty drifted back into a chase group of eight riders battling for silver and bronze.
That group approached the finish line slowly, with no one wanting to make the first move. British rider Adam Yates made that move, with McNulty in tow, only to be overhauled by van Aert and Pogacar, with the former taking silver after an agonizing wait for a photo finish. McNulty finished sixth.
With the race taking athletes outside of Tokyo, fans were able to congregate outside the reaches of the city’s state of emergency. People were massed on overpasses and beat drums alongside the road in the countryside and on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Close to 8,000 fans gathered at the speedway on the race’s first pass through the track, still a couple of hours away from the finish at the same spot, reported NBC commentator Steve Porino.
Early breakaways are generally nothing of note in road races of this length if none of the favorites are involved, but by the time the race hit the first of the day’s climbs, a group of eight had opened a gap of more than 20 minutes and more than six miles. The most notable name was Slovakia’s Juraj Sagan, whose younger brother Peter has won three world championships and claimed the Tour de France points classification seven times. Peter Sagan missed the Olympics due to complications from a crash in this year’s Tour.
The lead pack dwindled to five riders before the climb to the race’s highest point, roughly 85 miles into the race. On that climb, the peloton finally got serious about chasing down the lead pack, setting a pace that dislodged accomplished riders such as defending champion Greg van Avermaet and 2018 world champion Alejandro Valverde. A hardy group of riders, a little more than half of the 130 men who started the race, passed the peak 5:13 behind the leaders.
Four riders -- Sagan, the Czech Republic’s Michael Kukrle, Greece’s Polychronis Tzortzakis and Venezuela’s Orluis Aular -- stayed out in front until the race well past the 110-mile mark before being caught by what was left of a dwindling peloton.
Next up was the feared Mikuni Pass climb, where Pogacar, McNulty and Woods attempted to pull away. Pro teammates McNulty and Pogacar took turns leading the trio but were unable to keep an advantage that maxed out at less than 20 seconds. The attacker briefly put some distance between themselves and van Aert, but the Belgian climbed back into a lead group that wound up with roughly a dozen riders at the mountain pass.
Woods, who contended for King of the Mountain honors in the Tour de France, took off on the rapid descent from the steep climb but was rapidly reeled in. Several riders also attempted to break away before the fifth and final climb of the day, and once again, the most successful of those breaks included McNulty. The American’s companion on that break was Caparaz, who placed third in this year’s Tour de France and whose 2019 Giro d’Italia triumph was featured in the Netflix documentary “The Least Expected Day.”
German cyclist Simon Geschke did not start the race, withdrawing after testing positive for COVID-19.