Annemiek van Vleuten delivers despite the pressure
There has been a lot of pressure riding on Annemiek van Vleuten’s shoulders heading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Dutchwoman consistently dominates in the regular cycling season, but the Olympic medal has eluded Van Vleuten, who suffered an awful crash while leading the road race in Rio.
Van Vleuten came into the Tokyo games with some serious focus, having decided not to race since May to avoid any risk of crashes or injuries, even missing one of the biggest stage races of the year, the Giro Donne.
With that singular motivation, the pressure on Van Vleuten was already mounting, but was only compounded as the Netherlands began to suffer some seriously bad luck as the games got underway.
There is always the feeling that Van Vleuten often mounts huge expectations of herself on her shoulders, while often carrying Dutch hopes into any major international event.
While Van Vleuten may not have been the over-riding favourite (that honour went to Chloe Dygert of the USA), she was able to overcome all the pressure in the 22km women’s time trial on Wednesday (July 28), beating the field by almost a minute.
It was a huge result for Van Vleuten and very nearly completes her already staggering palmarès, adding a hard-earned gold to her silver from the road race.
Primož Roglič back on top after a tough Tour
Slovenia’s Primož Roglič is always among the favourites heading into a time trial, but the balance tips even further in his favour on a punchy climbing course like the one in Tokyo.
The 31-year-old’s strongest TT performances generally fall in the midst of a Grand Tour tilt, where he has routinely put time into his rivals, but he has never delivered in the biggest standalone solo tests (he was 12th in the Yorkshire World Championships in 2019).
After crashing on stage three of the Tour de France and eventually abandoning the race, along with his dreams of the yellow jersey, Roglič’s form was unknown heading into this race, particularly after only finishing 28th in the Olympic road race last weekend.
But it very quickly became clear that Roglič had some superior legs in the TT, setting the fastest time at the first timing check.
After the first of the two 22km laps, Roglič was still quickest but with only 10 seconds separating the top-five.
It was then that Roglič turned on the real power, extending his lead to more than a minute by the finish.
Despite the close battles out on the road, Roglič had actually dominated the race in the second lap, adding Olympic gold to his ever-growing list of achievements, which includes two Vuelta a España titles and second place in the Tour de France.
Roglič isn’t currently scheduled to race the Vuelta this year, but if his TT form is anything to go by, we could see him put up a formidable defence again.
Just don’t call him a ski-jumper.
The pre-race favourites fall short
Time trials often split opinion in the cycling world, as many fans consider the discipline a bit boring.
Some of the reason for that is the dominance often on display in time trials. It’s routinely the case that one in-form rider enjoy a spell of top results, making TTs a fairly predictable affair.
But that was not the case in the Olympics, as the clear pre-race favourites did not deliver.
In the women’s race, favourite status was split between Chloe Dygert (USA) and reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands).
While Dygert has been fairly anonymous in the regular season during the last two years, her stand-out performance in the 2019 World Championships in Yorkshire is hard to forget, making her a contender in any TT she enters. She had also been on course to smash the 2020 Worlds in Imola before a shocking crash took her out of the race.
But it wasn’t to be for the 24-year-old in the Olympics, as she finished in seventh place, 2-16 behind Van Vleuten.
Van der Breggen, who claimed the rainbow bands in the TT in Imola last year, has once again been in form against the clock in 2021, winning the Dutch National Championships TT and the Giro Donne time trial on her way to overall victory.
But Olympic gold was not within reach for the Dutchwoman on Wednesday, as she finished 1-02 behind Van Vleuten.
In the men’s race, the big favourites were world champion Filippo Ganna (Italy) and Belgium’s Wout van Aert after his Tour de France time trial win on stage 20.
But the undulating course took the advantage away from the two powerhouse riders, instead playing into the hands of general classification rider Roglič.
It was the nature of the course that really gave us some thrilling racing around the Fuji International Speedway, as heavier riders were forced to try and chase down the climbers on the descents.
While it can’t be denied that some TTs are in fact boring, the Olympic TTs were not in that category.
Tom Dumoulin and Rohan Dennis in the medals
Earlier this year Tom Dumoulin made the shock announcement that he would be taking a step back from cycling for an indefinite period.
The Dutch superstar said he needed to decide if he still loved riding his bike as a professional, sparking suspicions that he might leave the peloton for good.
But after taking time away from his Jumbo-Visma team, Dumoulin decided he missed the sport that he had flourished in and decided to return, making the Olympic TT his major target.
With mental health and athlete wellbeing becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in sports (gymnast Simone Biles recently highlighting the topic in Tokyo), Dumoulin’s silver medal sends an important message to the world – sport isn’t everything.
After looking after his own mind first, Dumoulin appears to have returned to the top of his game with a new-found motivation, which can only boost his performances in the long-run.
Rohan Dennis has consistently been one of the best time triallists in the world, but his results haven’t always reflected his ability.
It was 2018 when the Aussie finally delivered the big result he’d been waiting for, as he won the World Championships TT in Austria.
The following year Dennis was able to follow up with another Worlds win in Yorkshire, amidst team drama and a serious lack of racing throughout 2019.
Since then Dennis has been forced to chase down his Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Filippo Ganna, who now wears the crown as the inevitable pre-race favourite in any time trial.
>>> What does it take to be a time trial world champion? We asked Rohan Dennis’s coach to find out
Dennis had been a serious contender to medal during the 2016 Olympics in Rio, riding himself into contention for bronze before his handlebars snapped, slipping back to fifth place.
Meanwhile his result in the 2020 Worlds in Imola, where he finished fifth, doesn’t tell the full story, as Dennis went deep earlier in the course in the hopes of matching Filippo Ganna, putting everything into the win, but eventually suffering in the latter part of the course.
Dennis’s bronze medal in Tokyo will be both relief and encouragement, the result of five years of work and battling through a turbulent few years.
Dutch overcome the Tokyo curse
As a nation the Dutch tend to put other countries in the shade when it comes to cycling.
Over the years, the Netherlands have dominated in road races (thanks to Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten, and Anna van der Breggen), in time trials (Tom Dumoulin), cyclocross (Mathieu van der Poel), and on the track.
But in Tokyo it seemed like fate had a score to settle with the Dutch, as incident piled on top of incident.
First the Dutch women’s team missed out on gold in the road race last weekend, after a miscommunication meant Van Vleuten didn’t realise there was a lone leader up the road, celebrating as she crossed the line only to learn she had taken silver behind Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer.
Then Mathieu van der Poel crashed out of the mountain bike event, not realising a ramp on the course would be removed for the actual race. These were followed by incidents for Anna van der Breggen on the eve of the time trial and one of the Dutch BMX squad, when an official wandered onto the track and took out their rider during practice.
Despite all the chaos around the team, Van Vleuten had taken a consolation prize with her silver medal in the road race, albeit tainted by the disappointment of missing the gold due to an unusual team error.
But suddenly the Dutch are back to their best after the time trials, scoring three medals across the two races.
Van Vleuten claimed the first cycling gold for the nation, while Van der Breggen added to the medal tally with her bronze.
>>> Geraint Thomas says he ‘just needs to stay positive and try to keep going’ after Olympic time trial
Dutch cycling fans will also be delighted to see poster boy Tom Dumoulin back on the podium, securing silver in the men’s event after his indefinite break from cycling earlier this year.
Thanks to their TTs performances, the Netherlands now jumps into second place in the Cycling Weekly medals table, just one medal behind current leaders Switzerland.
The Tokyo curse appears to be broken.