The men's road race at the Tokyo Olympics is just two days away, with the cream of the crop of the international peloton set to do battle on a brutal mountainous course set in and around Mount Fuji.
Grand Tour winners, Monument winners and world champions will all go head to head on the 234km route from Musashinonomori Park to the Fuji International Speedway, with the first cycling gold medal of the Games up for grabs at the end of it.
It's been five years since Belgium's Greg Van Avermaet took victory in Rio de Janeiro, and we'll soon find out who will take over as Olympic road champion – or if he can become the fist man to retain his title.
Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar is the hot favourite, being clearly in top form and racing on a course which suits him. But there are plenty of challengers in with a shot at victory including third-placed finisher Richard Carapaz, veteran Alejandro Valverde, and the world's best all-rounder Wout van Aert.
Here, we take a look at 12 of the strongest contenders for victory on Saturday.
Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia)
The number one favourite – if he hasn't taken his foot off the gas in the last seven days, and if the race plays out in the manner in which most observers are predicting.
Pogačar was head and shoulders ahead of every other climber in the Tour de France and his one-day pedigree in the last two years has seen him competing for and winning major honours. It's hard to see a weakness within his armoury given that his climbing can seemingly get him out of trouble and even if teams try and isolate him they still struggle to crack him.
He certainly doesn't look naïve when it comes to one-day events so unless he's marked out of the race or his form drops off a cliff then he'll be in the mix. With Primož Roglič also in the team, Slovenia have the best one-two punch in the peloton.
Jakob Fuglsang (Demark)
The Danish rider was well short of his best form in the Tour de France with next to nothing to show for in terms of stage wins or the overall. However, as a silver medalist five years ago, Fuglsang is still a possible contender for a Tokyo medal if he's found his form when it matters most.
With wins in Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on his palmarès, the 36-year-old knows how to handle long distance one-day races over tough parcours, though his current chances depend on were the Dane's form lies. At the Tour he believed that his condition was subdued due to his second COVID vaccination and at this point only he will know whether the form has improved.
Interestingly, he pulled out of the final stage of the Tour in order to get an earlier flight to Tokyo. That shows his commitment to the Games. Or the fact that he just didn't fancy a ride to Paris. Time will tell.
Marc Hirschi (Switzerland)
If the Games had taken place just after last year's Tour de France then Hirschi would have been on everybody's lips when it came to listing favourites, such was his electrifying form, but the last 12 months have been a taxing experience for the 22-year-old.
He split with DSM due to issues behind the scenes and then didn't race until March of this year due to health problems. That meant he was below his best in the spring classics, even though he still managed sixth in Liège. He rode a different style of Tour this year but there were enough glimpses in the mountains to suggest that the UAE Team Emirates rider is once again approaching his best condition.
He can climb, he can attack with pace in the mountains and he has a devastating sprint in his legs. If the race has been described as a lottery, Hirschi has more tickets than most.
Richard Carapaz (Ecuador)
Carapaz is certainly a dark horse, but that helped Greg Van Avermaet five years ago and the 2020 Giro d'Italia winner can't be ruled out on such an intensely difficult route. The Ineos leader finished third in the Tour but his relatively shallow experience in one-day races could inadvertently be his strength.
The 28-year-old won't be as heavily marked as some of his rivals, he can climb with the best riders in the world, and although he has just one teammate for company he isn't expected to marshal any of the chasing. Like Fuglsang and Majka in 2016, Carapaz can pick his moment and strike.
Primoz Roglic (Slovenia)
There's a big question over his form and fitness after his crash in the Tour de France and subsequent withdrawal but if he wasn't able to compete then he wouldn't have got on the plane, it's that simple.
It could be that Roglič has resigned himself to helping Pogačar in the road race but assuming he has an element of freedom, and he has the legs then he could benefit from Pogacar being marked out of the race.
One thing is for certain and it's that Slovenia have one of the strongest teams in the race. An all-firing Roglič has the capacity to attack from distance and time trial away from the opposition.
Maximilian Schachmann (Germany)
Schachmann is one of the most underrated riders in the peloton, and while his proper Classics career only really began in 2019 he has quickly established himself as a force in one-day racing.
The course might be at his limits in terms of climbing but expect to see a competitive Schachmann in the thick of the moves just before the last wave of attacks as he tries to anticipate the likes of Pogacar and Van Aert.
Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
The Spaniard isn't as good as he was in 2018 or the previous decade and a half but few people saw Cancellara's time trial coming in 2016 and experienced veterans have a knack of rolling back the years when Olympic rings are up for grabs.
Prime Valverde would have been a major contender for the road race but even though the legs have slowed he's still within the realms of the favourites, while his stage win in the Dauphiné as well as his overall condition throughout the season means he cannot be ruled out. This will also be his fifth Games.
Bauke Mollema (Netherlands)
While the Dutch women look set to dominate their event, the same can't be said of their male colleagues. That said, the men in orange arrive in Tokyo with a robust team and are one of the few five-rider teams in the entire race. That extra man could have an impact on the race but from their riders it's Mollema who stands out.
Dumoulin, Kelderman and Van Baarle have undoubted talents, but Mollema is the rider who deserves their unwavering support. His stage win in the Tour was a timely reminder of his class, while we've seen him make his mark on the biggest one-day races before.
His record in the Worlds is nothing to write home about but on a one-off course like this Mollema looks primed and ready. He also has a tendency to attack early and from far out – and that could serve him well if rival team leaders are isolated and begin to look at each other in the final kilometres of the race.
Wout van Aert (Belgium)
He can time trial, sprint, and climb so it wouldn't be a huge surprise if news were to break that the Belgian landed the flight into Tokyo a few days ago. He would be an instant hit on the Krypton Factor if the greatest game show of all time were still on our airwaves.
In all seriousness though, Van Aert is the most complete rider we've seen in decades, as shown by his performances at the Tour de France where he won three stages in a variety of manners – and all despite having major surgery just a few months ago. Some will point to the fact that his mountain stage win came from the break rather than the GC contenders, and while that's true, it's worth remember a number of factors.
Firstly, that's the pattern Van Avermaet followed in 2016 and over less testing terrain with Van Aert having crested Mont Ventoux twice. Secondly, an entire train of Ineos riders couldn't bring him back, which is testament to his remarkable climbing powers of late. He's probably the rider that Roglič and Pogačar respect the most given that he could be tough to drop and almost unbeatable in a sprint.
Adam Yates (Great Britain)
The British team has a deceptively strong squad on paper with a quartet consisting of three Grand Tour winners and Adam Yates. However, despite the trophy cabinet the team have failed to perform in road and Olympic races (on the men's side) with the obvious exceptions being Mark Cavendish and Max Sciandri.
All of their riders have the capacity to turn in winning rides but it's Adam Yates who stands out. He's not raced since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but has been targeting this race all year and given that his brother and Thomas both hit the deck in Tour he's at least the freshest rider out of the four. He has the talent to make a major impact on the race but it's mystery at this point as to where his form sits.
Michael Woods (Canada)
Woods is another rider who left the Tour de France early in order to sneak in a bit of extra recovery ahead of Tokyo and the 34-year-old Canadian will be hoping that the decision will pay off as he looks for his maiden Olympic medal.
He has a couple of teammates in Boivin and Houle to keep him out of trouble for the early stages of the race, while his displays in previously tough Road World Championships demonstrate that he will look to animate the race if he has the legs. His climbing is outstanding but he will need to win alone or be lucky with the final selection as his sprint is one of the weakest among riders on this list.
David Gaudu (France)
The final spot was a toss up between Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, Patrick Konrad and Gaudu with the Frenchman coming out on top by virtue of his improving forming the last week of the Tour de France.
He has never raced a senior event for France but his climbing puts him in the conversation and he probably sits further ahead than Martin, who also rode a strong Tour de France. The French have a solid team but Gaudu’s third in Liège this year, along with his aggressive nature, are key indicators of his chances.
Editor in Chief - Cyclingnews.
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