Tokyo 2020 - Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogacar and a golden age of superstars in Tokyo
He may have been forced to settle for silver behind Richard Carapaz, but Wout van Aert’s silver medal was the latest reminder of his versatility. The Belgian arrived in Japan after winning three stages – a mountain stage, a time trial and a sprint on the Champs-Elysees – before edging fellow sensation Tadej Pogacar in the race for second on the Fuji Speedway.
'Makes you teary-eyed' - Carapaz embraced by Ecuador team-mate in touching moment
There was once a time when we used to distinguish between rider types. There were one-day racers and GC guys; sprinters, time trialists and climbers. Then there were road racers and trackies, cyclo-crossers and mountain bikers, who were all very different people.
Professionalism brings - and requires - specialism, or so the received wisdom was. We haven’t even mentioned the idea that age and treachery was supposed to overcome youth and skill, but don’t worry, we shall.
Today it seems, there’s so much crossover of capabilities, overlap between disciplines, that such distinctions - at the top of the two-wheeled world - have been rendered almost entirely redundant.
Watch finish as 'magnificent' Carapaz storms to road race gold in style
“Best all-round road rider in the world” also doesn’t seem like an adequate representation of who he is, either. It gives the impression that the Belgian is a jack of all trades, master of none, when he is, demonstrably, a master of all them. The rider who finished first on the Champs Elysees should not, reasonably, be able to take a silver medal from an Olympic road race course with almost 5000 metres of climbing. And yet that’s what happened. Did we mention that he won a 30km time trial the day before that?
And then there’s that inexperienced young fella who claimed bronze in Tokyo. Yes, you might expect the winner of the Tour de France - who happened to claim a couple of summit finishes himself - to do alright over a few big hills, but it absolutely does not compute that the same man should require a photo finish to separate him from the winner of the Paris sprint.
The 22 year-old (22! Good heavens) also took a time trial at the Tour (try saying that one three times fast when you’ve been up since 5am) and if you’ve already forgotten that he won a Monument in April, well, who can blame you.
Speaking of time trials, the Olympic one takes place on Wednesday. If you were expecting the world champion in that discipline to be skinsuiting up and nailed on to net you a few quid, I’m sorry but no. Not because he’s not on form - Filippo Ganna took two TT wins at his home Grand Tour in May - but because he’s switched back to the track, and will be aiming for gold in the team pursuit in the velodrome instead. For what it’s worth, to add to the pile of evidence in support of a not entirely concrete thesis, Ganna also took a mountain stage at the Giro d’Italia less than twelve months ago.
Another rider who can hop on a completely different bike like it’s nothing is Mathieu van der Poel. Van der Poel, who wore the maillot jaune for five days at the Tour de France last month himself, could have probably put in a good ride earlier, was he not preparing for the mountain bike event, for which he is the favourite.
Lining up alongside him will be Great Britain’s Tom Pidcock. Pidcock has been riding for most of this season for Ineos Grenadiers and, in a further twist, is being touted as one of the only riders capable of interrupting Pogacar’s anticipated Tour de France dominance.
If the recent Tour de France is anything to go by, rather than neutralising the racing, this extraordinary multi-disciplinary strength only makes for more excitement on the road (or the track, or the sand).
A short note about age, as I promised I’d get to it, the 14th oldest rider in the Tour won more stages than anyone else, after a five-year drought. That said, he’s such a specialist that he perhaps puts a lie to the theory I’ve been touting up to now, so maybe I just wanted to give Mark Cavendish an honourable mention.
We appear to be in a golden age of superstars, and our sport is all the better off for it.
'One of phenomenal Carapaz's biggest wins' - Wiggins reacts to road race
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