Tokyo Olympics 2021: Women's Road Race - Preview

Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) is the defending champion in the elite women's road race at the Olympic Games
Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) is the defending champion in the elite women's road race at the Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty Image)

The Tokyo Olympic Games are about to come to fruition following their postponement last summer due the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Athletes are descending into Tokyo prepared for a different kind of Olympic experience without the spectators, fanfare, media frenzy or the athlete village, and there will be numerous protocols and restrictions in place that are meant to keep everyone at the venue as safe as possible. 

The heart of the competition remains intact, and so, competing athletes, and fans watching from their televisions at home around the globe, can expect a compelling elite women’s road race on Sunday July 25.

The UCI announced the number of athletes that each National Olympic Committee has qualified for road events for the Tokyo Olympic Games with 130 spots for the elite men's road race and only 67 for the women's road race. 

It showed a startling, but historic, lack of parity, which had many questioning the UCI's commitment to equality in professional cycling, but the sport governing body has since promised full gender parity in terms of athlete numbers in cycling events at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. At the next summer Olympics, there will be a total of 180 spots allocated to the cycling road races that will redistributed and divided evenly between the elite men's and women's races, with 90 athletes in each event.

This year, the 67 athletes that will be competing in the elite women's road race include dominant nations in the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Each will field four riders, while all other nations will field between one to three riders in the road race.

The Dutch women's team have dominated the past two Olympic Games with Marianne Vos winning in the gold medal in London 2012 and Anna van der Breggen winning the gold medal in 2016 Rio de Janeiro. 

The Dutch national team announced a luxury four-rider team to compete in the women's road race in Tokyo and they look all-but set to win a third consecutive gold medal with a dream team that includes Anna van der BreggenAnnemiek van VleutenMarianne Vos and Demi Vollering.

Riders to watch

Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) - The double world champion lines up as the defending champion for the women's road race and the outright favourite to win a second consecutive gold medal. She has had a stellar season that includes winning a record seventh Flèche Wallonne and a fourth overall title at the Giro d'Italia Donne right before boarding a plane to the Tokyo Olympic Games. She is scheduled to retire at the end of 2021 and she has every intention setting the highest possible standard in her final season as a professional before transitioning into a sport director for her trade team SD Worx. 

Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) - Van Vleuten will be competing in her third Olympic Games after racing in 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro, where she was involved in a horrific, high-speed crash on the final descent while leading the race that left her recovering from a severe concussion and three small fractures in her lower back. Winner of the Tour of Flanders earlier this spring, she then skipped the Giro d'Italia Donne to focus on the Olympics. Van Vleuten said she spent time training at altitude in Italy and part of that training included turbo sessions in a climate room that helped her adjust to the expected heat and humidity in Tokyo.

Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) -  She was just 22 years old when she first competed at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and finished 6th place. Niewiadoma said that a lot has changed in the five intervening years and that maturity, as well as feeling refreshed and motivated, will help her in her pursuit for a medal this time around. This year she was fourth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, second at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Flèche Wallonne, fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 10th at Vuelta a Burgos and sixth at La Course. She also skipped the Giro Donne and instead raced Baloise Belgium Tour to gain high-end speed and a spark of pure motivation ahead of Tokyo Olympic Games.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa) - Fresh off of her first victory at the Giro Donne, on the queen stage  9 summit of Monte Matajur, Moolman-Pasio is primed for success on the hilly route of the Tokyo Olympic Games. She will not have teammates on the start line, but if she queues off of her SD Worx trade teammates Van der Breggen and Demi Vollering over the mountains, she could find herself in a medal-position at the Fuji International Speedway.

Grace Brown (Australia) - She has made no bones about the fact that Australia is not racing for second place in Tokyo. Brown, along with her teammates Amanda Spratt and Sarah Gigante led by on-road captain Tiffany Cromwell, are in good  standing to give the Dutch team a run for their money on the hilly course. While Spratt and Gigante might be the stronger climbers, Brown has the perfect combination of power and punch for this occasion. She won Brugge-De Panne and finished third at Tour of Flanders earlier in the year, and recently finished third in the mountain time trial at the Giro Donne. Watch for Brown contest the climbs and perhaps steal a late-race breakaway at the Fuji International Speedway.

Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) - She was sightly off at the recent Giro d'Italia Donne, but Longo Borghini remains a prime contender for the Tokyo Olympic Games. She won the bronze medal in Rio 2016, and has been gearing up for these games with an all-or-nothing approach to her racing style that has netted her victories at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, National Championships and podiums at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She has a strong team that includes Marta Cavalli, Marta Bastianelli and Soraya Paladin, so watch for this team to support Longo Borghini to success in Tokyo.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) - Ruled out of the Giro Donne due to a crash in the opening team time trial, Uttrup Ludwig has recovered and ready to contest a medal in Tokyo. The course is suited to her characteristics as a hilly Classics rider, who this year has finished in the top 10 at Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She went on to claim her first Women's WorldTour win at Vuelta a Burgos and then finished second at La Course.

Preview Cyclingnews' full start lists here.

The route

The elite women's 137km road race will start from Musashinonomori Park and end at the Fuji International Speedway. The women's course will not go over Mt. Fuji like the men's but will include climbs over Donushi Road and Kagosaka Pass, and there will be 2,692 metres of elevation gain.

The women’s field will depart Musashinonomori Park and begin with a 10km neutral zone followed by roughly 30km of flat terrain before reaching the mid-race section of climbing. 

The women’s field will then tackle the some 45km of gradual climbing with an average gradient of 2 per cent to the top of the first ascent of the race, Donushi Road. The final 5km of the climb will test the peloton with an average of 6 per cent but with sections as steep as 10 per cent. The ascent peaks at the 80km mark of the race. 

After a a 1.5km descent and 12.5km of flat terrain along Lake Yamanaka, the peloton will begin climbing the second ascent over Kagosaka Pass. This climb is 2.2km with an average gradient of 5 per cent.  

The peloton will then embark on a 14km descent toward the Fuji International Speedway, where the women’s field will contest one and a half laps of the undulating track before crowning a winner of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

What to expect

The Dutch team have been all the talk ahead of these Olympic Games and that is because they field four potential winners. 

On a route that has been tipped as being similar to an Ardennes Classic, this team has won them all this year, with Vos winning Amstel Gold Race, Van der Breggen winning Flèche Wallonne, and Vollering winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège. While not one of the three Ardennes, Van Vleuten also won the Tour of Flanders.

When it comes to the Dutch team, they normally line up as the most powerful squad at major events such as the Olympic Games and the World Championships. While some might question their ability to remain cohesive and focused on a team goal, in the end they remain professional, and almost always ride away with the victory.

We can expect to see the Dutch team control the narrative during the elite women's road race. Over the mid-race climbs, watch for Van der Breggen or Van Vleuten go on a long-range attack, and in the event of a reduced sprint, watch for Vollering or Vos. 

However, bike races always have an element of unpredictability and surprise. Some nations, particularly those with fewer numbers, might be forced to pay by the Dutch rules in order to make the selection, but there is nothing stopping other nations from racing a tactical race from start to finish. 

Look to nations with equal numbers as the Dutch squad, such as Italy, USA, Germany and Australia, to play a tactical game. In addition, watch for riders from smaller nations such as Spain's Mavi Garcia, to try their hand at a breakaway in order to disrupt the status quo.

The course in Tokyo offers the bulk of its climbing mid-race, and so we can expect to see either a gradual dwindling down of the peloton or an outright battle over the Donushi Road ascent. We can also expect to see explosive attacks over the Kagosaka Pass, the last major climb on course.

However, the final leg of the race is undulating and presents the perfect opportunity for Ardennes-style racers who are left in the mix, and in that case, expect to see a late-race breakaway or a small group sprint at the Fuji International Speedway.

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Kirsten Frattini
Women's Editor

Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.

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