Favourites usually win. That’s why they’re the favourites. Well, if we’re being strictly accurate, they’re favourites because there’s a general consensus that, at the end of the day/match/race they will emerge victorious. They do usually win, though. That’s why you don’t often hear about bookmakers going bust.
When a favourite doesn’t win, however, it’s often because they were the favourite.
The 2020 men’s Olympic road race proved to be just one of those days.
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Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar and the Belgian Wout van Aert, who were the two most dominant riders at the Tour de France, were rightly installed as the most likely Olympic road race champions. Before the race that was reflected in their odds - both less than 10-1 - and then on the road, as the other nations obliged the team in blue and the one in green to divide work at the front of the peloton between them.
Richard Carapaz, even though he finished on the podium in Paris last Sunday, was an unfancied 50-1 outsider. So someone probably made some money as he clinched a stunning win off the front. It can’t have hurt that he only had one team-mate, Jhonatan Narvaez, while Belgium and Slovenia came with squads of five and four respectively.
To name names, it was specifically Jan Tratnik and Greg van Avermaet who put in the hard yards. For the first 100km and more of the race, as it headed out of Tokyo and into the forested foothills around Mount Fuji, the pair seemed to be barely off the front. First they afforded the break of lesser riders - Nicolas Dlamini (South Africa), Michael Kukrle (Czech Republic), Juraj Sagan (Slovakia), Eduard-Michael Grosu (Romania), Polychronis Tzortzakis (Greece), Orluis Aular Sanabria (Venezuela), Paul Daumont (Burkina Faso) and Elchin Asadov (Azerbaijan), all Olympians to a man - a good length of rope, and then reeled it in at the exact moment and at the exact rate they were required to do so.

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Van Avermaet, in his last race as the reigning champion, rode with a humility that might surprise anyone who hasn’t seen him out of that gaudy gold helmet for the past five years. Tratnik was similarly tireless, riding with the steely determination of one who knew his team-mate could make it pay. The stocky Bahrain-Victorious rider does not look like a climber, yet even the long slopes of a stunning Mount Fuji could not shake him from his task. Twice he seemed to have slipped back and on each occasion we thought his job was done for the day. Both times he surprised us by returning to the head of affairs, in the company of one of his leaders.
Only on the steeper slopes of the Mikuni Pass, which reared up deep into the high teens and passed 20% in places, did Tratnik let the race go. As did almost everyone else at that point. And it was Tratnik’s team-mate, Pogacar who was the first to put in a proper push. It wasn’t a full-throated attack, but enough to cause problems, and present challenges. Michael Woods of Canada and the USA’s Brandon McNulty were the two who opted to go with him. The onus was on Wout van Aert to pull the move back, which he duly did, but it cost him.
With 25km to go, we had our dirty (baker’s) dozen, from which the day’s winner was guaranteed to come. McNulty, Tadej Pogacar’s trade team-mate, had to know that attack was the best form of defence, and also perhaps sensed that he was more likely than most of that group to be allowed a gap. With the end of the climb not far off, he initiated a move which only Carapaz had the nouse to latch onto.
For the full six hours and five minutes of the race, the Ecuadorian rode smarter than anyone else. He was also, without question, strong but the key to his victory was picking his moment. That came at 22km to go, as he followed a move made by the USA’s Brandon McNulty on the steep slopes of the Mikuni Pass.
While the big names behind watched each other, but Van Aert and Pogacar especially, the two from the Americans had no cause for such hesitation. They shared the load, took turns, and built up a lead. Cooperation was the name of the game. Both demonstrably understood that there was no point saving energy for the finale if doing so would prevent them from getting there as a unit.

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Only at 5km to go, with McNulty clearly flagging, and the remains of the peloton closing, did Carapaz cut the American loose. With 3km left of the race, as he rode onto the Fuji International speedway finishing circuit he had re-established a 30 second lead. The game was up.
By the time he crossed the line Carapaz had over a minute on the minor medallists. He had time to take it all in, including the rapturous reception of the crowd - this being one of the few events to allow spectators to attend.
Van Aert and Pogacar claiming silver and bronze respectively from the sprint is probably adequate evidence in support of any case you’d care to make that they were the two strongest riders in the race. The thing is, although sometimes it is enough to be the strongest rider in the race, and even to have the strongest team, at others it isn’t.
That sprint was started by Britain’s Adam Yates, although the rider from Bury would only manage 9th place. Team GB were a barely present, thanks in no small part to an early crash involving - who else? - Geraint Thomas, and also Tao Geoghegan Hart. Carapaz’s victory will, however, have come as some consolation to several of his Ineos team-mates in the British squad.
To take only the second Olympic gold medal in his country’s history Richard Carapaz had - and gave - everything today. A worthy winner of a race worthy of any Olympics.

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