Cycling

As if the narrow time frame between the Tour de France and the Tokyo Olympics men’s road race isn’t challenging enough, Covid-19 puts another spoke in the wheel. By Kieran Pender.

Tour riders wheels up for Tokyo Olympics

Australian Richie Porte of Team Ineos Grenadiers at the start of stage 3 of the Tour de France this week.
Credit: Chris Graythen / Getty Images

As the world’s best cyclists rode through the fields of north-west France this week, Mount Fuji’s long shadow loomed over them. Not literally, of course – the Japanese peak is 10,000 kilometres away. But with just five days separating the end of the Tour de France and the men’s Olympic road race, the prospect of climbing Fuji – the centrepiece of the Tokyo 2021 course – looms large in the minds of many in the peloton.

The short window between the Tour de France, the most important event on the yearly cycling calendar, and the Tokyo Olympics was always going to be problematic. Even before the pandemic, national cycling programs were pondering the logistical complexities of extricating their riders from the post-tour party and getting them to Japan in the shortest possible time. Covid-19 has only compounded these dilemmas.

“The big discussion we had six months ago was whether the tour was ideal preparation for the Olympic Games,” explains Simon Jones, performance director at AusCycling. “It was an obvious question to ask, and there are different views – depending on the roles that riders play and so on.” Of the four Australian male road riders selected for Tokyo, Richie Porte is currently one-third of his way through the 3417-kilometre epic; Jack Haig’s French campaign ended after less than three days following a heavy crash that has left his Tokyo campaign in doubt; while Cameron Meyer and time trialist Rohan Dennis decided to give the tour a miss. “Our job is to enable and facilitate, rather than direct and manage the road riders,” Jones says.

These comments hint at the tension in road cycling between club and country. Australia’s elite riders are all contracted to European-based trade teams, which pay their (often significant) wages. For these teams, the Tour de France is an unmissable yearly opportunity, while the Olympics – where riders are in national colours, not displaying the team’s sponsors – have considerably less value. This stands in contrast to track cycling, where Australia’s squad is part of a full-time national team program.

“We can’t compete – and don’t want to compete – with pro teams, so we have to work with them,” Jones says. “We never forget who pays their wages; we don’t pay them anything. In cycling you have to worry about what you can control and influence, and what you can’t. We do our best to support the athletes on a very targeted basis.”

For Jones, who has oversight of high performance for all four cycling disciplines – track, road, mountain bike and BMX – this actually alleviates the burden on him and his staff. “I would say the road program is the least stressful because the role we play is relatively small,” he says. “We know what our role is with the road riders, and what it isn’t.”

On the other side of the fence is Matt White, chief sports director at Team BikeExchange, the Australian World Tour team. “The Olympics have definitely impacted who is doing the tour, who has chosen not to do it,” explains White, a former professional cyclist from Sydney. “It has certainly altered race programs. For example – the two Slovenians [rivals Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič] head into the tour as favourites. Roglič hasn’t raced for two months. There’s methodology behind the madness there: he wants to carry his form through another week, to the Olympic window.”

Two of White’s riders in France are heading to Tokyo immediately afterwards: Englishman Simon Yates and Colombian Esteban Chaves. “Simon and Esteban are not riding general classification [targeting the yellow jersey], so they have the luxury of having easier days, they don’t have to exert themselves to the maximum for 21 days in a row. I think that is a big advantage for their Olympic aspirations.”

White says he is doubtful that any rider who lasts the distance in France, battling for the yellow jersey until the end, will be on the podium in Tokyo. “We are talking about a five-day window,” he says. “No one can get out of Paris until the Monday [July 19], and then the race is in Tokyo on Saturday [July 24] … The amount of physical and mental stress over these three weeks is immense. Bradley Wiggins did it in 2012, with [gold in] the time trial, but that’s a different story – a one-hour transfer on the same continent [to London], not a 10-hour flight to more humid conditions. The winner of the Tour de France will struggle to double up and win gold at the Games.”

At the Olympics, Richie Porte is an outside chance of medal success, having recently won the Critérium du Dauphiné. Because he is riding in support of his Ineos Grenadiers colleagues rather than taking a leadership role, his program should aid his preparation for the games, says White. “[Riding in support in France] will certainly help his chances of getting a medal in Tokyo.”

Rohan Dennis, meanwhile, is absent from the tour to focus on his time trial event in Tokyo. The South Australian is a two-time world champion in the discipline, but has recently been overtaken by Italian Filippo Ganna as the world’s pre-eminent time trialist. The battle between them for Olympic gold will be fierce.

Australia’s women head to Tokyo with medal prospects on the road. Amanda Spratt, silver and bronze medallist at recent world championships, is well suited to the gruelling road race around Fuji. She will be joined in Japan by Grace Brown, Tiffany Cromwell and Sarah Gigante. Brown, a former time trial national champion, is also a possible medallist in the road race or in the battle against the clock. “I know they’re ready to go,” says White. (Brown and Spratt both ride for his team, BikeExchange.) “Both are capable of winning medals, that’s for sure.” In the tour-adjacent La Course last Saturday, Brown finished an impressive fifth.

Olympic road racing differs from trade team competitions, such as the tour, with much smaller teams – Australia has just four riders in the women and three in the men, while the standard team size at the tour is eight.

“With smaller teams and smaller fields, [the Olympic races are] really hard to control,” White says.

Riders at the tour each have a headphone in their ear to enable communication with the team cars – but such technology is banned at the Olympics.

“You can’t really do anything,” says Simon Jones. “When you’re in the team car, you’re just a car driver – you can’t communicate, you can’t change strategy. Which means there’s a lot of uncertainty – it is very hard to predict the outcome. You can have the best legs but not win the race.”

In the next two weeks, as the tour peloton pedals closer to Paris, Fuji’s shadow will loom even larger. For Jones, the dilemma will be eminently practical.

“The biggest challenge, to be honest, is that you have to get two Covid tests in the last two days of the Tour de France,” he says. “Not only do we have to get [the riders] to Tokyo, but we have to get them tested twice in the 96 hours before they get on the plane. That’s what we’re stressed about – it’s actually quite hard to do. The biggest challenge this year is turning up. It’s going to be an extraordinary Games.”

Jones is currently with Australia’s track cycling team at a final camp at the Anna Meares Velodrome in Brisbane before they head to Tokyo. The Englishman will be watching Porte as well as Haig’s injury management from afar. Jones says that, other than the testing and travel logistics, he feels at ease about the road program.

“Generally speaking, [for the road] the stress goes down leading into a championships  because there are less things that you can do that will actually make a meaningful impact,” he says. “Whereas on the track, because it’s won or lost in one-thousandth of a second, little details really really matter.”

White, meanwhile, insists that his focus is now solely on the tour. “Our priority is winning at the Tour de France,” he says. “My No. 1 priority is to get wins as the team. It is a bonus for those guys to go to the Olympics to represent their country. We’ve given them good preparation, race-calendar-wise, and their roles in the tour will enable them to have a successful Olympics. But once the racing starts [in France], the Olympics are certainly not in the front of my mind.”

That may be true for White. But, one suspects, for every Olympian currently in the Tour de France peloton, the prospect of a gold medal in Tokyo will cause their mind to wander more than once in the remaining two weeks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "Uphill battles".

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Kieran Pender is an Australian writer and lawyer, and an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law.