Some Olympic gold medal events demand your immediate focus and attention. Others set out on their own slow and arduous pace to decide on such things.
It was just after 11am local Tokyo time when the 130 riders started on a 244km road cycling course which featured several approaches in and around Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, nestled majestically on the far outskirts of Tokyo, before finishing on the Fuji Motor Speedway circuit normally reserved for super-fast cars.
It was here, after more than six hours in and out of the saddle - six hours, five minutes and 26 seconds to be precise - where a rider from Ecuador won only a second ever gold medal for his country in Olympic history, Richard Carapaz riding into the footsteps of Jefferson Perez, who won their first gold medal in the 20kn walk in Atlanta 1996.
It was shortly before the penultimate climb when hopes of an Irish medal began to gather to some pace too: Eddie Dunbar briefly jumped into a trio of riders off the front, with just under 60km to go, intent on making at least some statement of their ambitions.
Along with Dunbar, the 24 year-old from Kanturk riding his first Olympics, was Belgium’s gold medal hope Remco Evenepoel and the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who had put the significant focus on Tokyo, the problem being the other medal hopes in the fast-shrinking peloton behind them were having none of it.
Among them was Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar from Slovenia, looking to become the first man to add an Olympic gold in that same winning season, plus the other Belgian Wout van Aert, almost certain to have the best sprint if it came down to it.
So Carapaz had to get away, which he did, accelerating first with 25km in a move with the American Brandon McNulty, before breaking away solo 5.8km to go: he won by a minute and seven seconds, van Aert winning the sprint behind for silver, Pogacar seemingly no less pleased with bronze.
Behind them Dan Martin ended up best of the Irish in 16th, just shy of his joint best ever Irish finish of 13th in Rio 2016, and while Dunbar ended up 76th, just one place ahead of Roche in 75th, there was no regret or displeasure at the effort.
“Yeah, it was a very, very tough day,” said Dunbar. “A long day in the saddle, it was nice to get another race ticked off the list, and I thought it was another super performance by the team. We stayed out of trouble all day, never dropped outside the top 30 all day I would day. Nico did a brilliant job of keeping me and Dan out of trouble.
“I followed a move with a 60km to go, with Remco, and Nibali, and when you see a rider like that move it’s important you follow, I think. Given his characteristics and what he’s capable of doing. I felt good at the time, and you never know what could have happened in a situation like that. But yeah, it didn’t pay off, it’s one of those things, that’s one day racing, you normally only have one bullet, and when you use it that’s normally race over. But I thought it was a great day for us, Dan finished in the top 20, so great day, and a good ride by all of us in the green jersey, and we just look forward now to moving on to the rest of the season, and doing our best.”
Anyone who has followed the cycling career of the 28 year-old Carapaz - particularly around the adulation he received in Ecuador after winning the 2019 Giro d’Italia, or indeed his third place finish in the Tour de France just last Sunday - will understand what this likely means: Olympic gold medals in road cycling, outside of the Grand Tours, naturally, are also considered pretty sacred, and Carapaz has just joined that sacred or elite group.
It unfolded as a suitably fascinating race on many levels, ultimately decided as most predicted over two penultimate climbs: the Mikuni Pass, which came some 34km from the finish, and then the Kagosaka Pass, which topped out with 21km to go, before the mostly downhill to the entrance to the Fuji Speedway.
For Martin, the 34-year-old riding in his third Olympics, there was the added emotion with the realisation Tokyo would likely be his last shot at an Olympic medal: “Yeah, we came here with the idea of getting a medal, Honestly, it’s been my best experience in an Irish team since I’ve been racing for Ireland, the best preparation possible, the staff have been amazing. And we really worked together, it was a great team performance, and unfortunately I just didn’t have the legs when it mattered, on the climb. It was a super hot there, and I just missed a couple of seconds even just to be in that front section, which was fighting for the medals.
“I was a bit emotional coming into today, thinking it could be my last Olympics, probably is my last Olympics, and I really wanted to put on a good performance, and I think we did that. Just that little bit to get a medal, but that’s cycling, hopefully a good start to the Irish team, and it sums up Team Ireland in general, we gave it everything we had, and have to be happy.”
For Roche too, riding in his fourth Olympics, there was that equal sense of satisfaction that all three had given their all over the 244km: “Today the tactics was I would look after the two boys, to put them in the best position for the finish, which I did, looked after them all day. Eddie tried to go in an early move, with Remco, and Dan just played a safe card, kind of waiting and pacing himself.
“It’s been an honour to ride four Olympics, and I’ve had myself to go for results on my own, three times, and I thought it was fair to really commit this time around for the other two, who were in my opinion stronger for the day.”