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There will be a lot of talent to watch at this year’s Olympic men’s road race.
Recently-crowned Tour de France champ Tadej Pogačar, Swiss Army knife superstar Wout van Aert, and vengeful veteran Vincenzo Nibali are among a long list of riders eyeing Olympic gold Saturday. It’s a superstar selection that more than makes up for the absence of Julian Alaphilippe, Egan Bernal and Peter Sagan.
With so many riders to watch and some unfamiliar jerseys to pick through, who should you be keeping a close eye out for Saturday?
These are our tips for three teams set to animate the race:
Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Greg Van Avermaet, Tiesj Benoot, Mauri Vansevenant
The Belgian blue should be all over the front of the road in Tokyo. Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel top a five-strong Belgian squad captained by the wise head of defending Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet.
Evenepoel was quick to bounce back from his Giro d’Italia implosion this spring, winning the Baloise Tour and twice finishing on the podium at the Belgian nationals. He’s been quiet since, but it’s certain that the phenom of the pro peloton will have been busy in training after a year of eyeing the Toyko Games with glory in mind.
At 21 years old, Evenepoel has five Olympic cycles ahead of him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make the medals at the very first attempt.
Van Aert is also sniffing after a medal after conquering an unlikely trio of sprint, mountain, and time trial stages at the Tour de France. The steep slopes of the Mikuni climb at the close of Saturday’s race could prove tough for the burly Belgian, but if van Aert has twice conquered Mont Ventoux in a single day, he can do pretty much anything, right?
Add the climbing chops of Tiesj Benoot and Mauri Vansevenant into the mix and it looks like the rain, winds and bergs of Belgium could produce their second-straight Olympic champion in Tokyo’s scorching summer this weekend.
“Golden Greg” Van Avermaet could be passing his golden helmet over to a new generation of Belgian talent Saturday night.
Primož Roglič, Tadej Pogacar, Jan Tratnik, Jan Polanc
Primož Roglic and Tadej Pogačar should be a recipe for instant success, right? The two biggest stars of grand tour racing head up a Slovenian quartet that should keep the small but mighty cycling nation at the top of the headlines in Tokyo.
Also read: Pogačar threatens to smother Tour de France
Both Roglič and recently crowned Tour champ Pogačar pack the perfect skillset to dominate the Tokyo course thanks to their blistering climbing speed and finishing kick. Despite being fierce rivals when in the saddle, the pair are friends off the bike and combined well to work Roglič into the lead group in the Imola worlds last year.
The main questions for Rog and Pog may be their post-Tour form however.
Roglič only saw eight days of racing in France before a swathe of post-crash pains called time on his hunt for the Maillot. The acres of road rash he suffered in his stage 3 fall may have hamstrung his training and recovery in recent weeks.
There are definitely no such questions over Pogačar’s form. The 22-year-old floated through France at 80bpm as he dominated his way into a second yellow jersey. Can Pogačar carry the momentum from Paris to Tokyo? There’s no reason why not.
Tour de France star Matej Mohorič won’t be at the Olympics, meaning it will be down to Jan Polank and Jan Tratnik to do the early pulling. However, no matter who Slovenia sent as its Olympic backing crew, there’s a sense that an on-form Roglič and Pogačar would be just fine fending for themselves.
Vincenzo Nibali, Gianni Moscon, Alberto Bettiol, Giulio Ciccone, Damiano Caruso
If Vincenzo Nibali’s ever going to win an Olympic medal, it’s this year. At 36-years old, Nibali will see Tokyo as his final opportunity to add one last trophy to a palmarès that already boasts victories across all three grand tours and two monuments.
Nibali is a part of an Italian squad that packs options for all scenarios and situations. Damiano Caruso returns from his standout Giro d’Italia to join top climber Giulio Ciccone and Lamborghini rouleurs Gianni Moscon and Alberto Bettiol. On their day, almost any of the “Azzurri” could step onto the podium.
Although Nibali is far from the top of his game, the mountainous route on tap Saturday is ideal for his offensive style and the late descent off the Kagosaka Pass will no doubt be circled in bold in his roadbook.
Nibali has a score to settle after seeing his podium hopes slide out from beneath his wheels on the rain-soaked roads of Rio in 2016. The wily veteran will bring every last drop of his racing nous and experience to the roads of Tokyo, and whether it pays off or not, Nibali should at least spark a flare Saturday.
The future is still uncertain for “The Shark of Messina” as he looks for life after Trek-Segafredo. If 2021 is Nibali’s last year in pro racing, a medal at the Games would see him out in style.
Here are four more teams balancing both the strength in depth and individual brilliance that will be needed to see a medal in Tokyo:
Colombia: Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, Sergio Higuita, Esteban Chaves
France: David Gaudu, Guillaume Martin, Kenny Elissonde, Rémi Cavagna, Benoît Cosnefroy
Spain: Alejandro Valverde, Gorka and Ion Izagirre, Jesús Herrada, Omar Fraile
Great Britain: Simon Yates, Adam Yates, Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart