2021 Olympic Women’s Road Race: With the Women’s Olympic Road Race just around the corner, I wanted to take a moment to preview the basic details of the course, go over the favorites and tactics. Hopefully, these details can make everyone a slightly more informed viewer and increase your enjoyment of the race.
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Anna van der Breggen in Rio’16
The 136-kilometers course features 2,270 meters (7,447 ft) of elevation gain and is significantly shorter, and technically, easier than the men’s race. But, the smaller teams and more aggressive racing of Women’s racing will likely make the race just as selective. Additionally, the scorching temperatures and high humidity will pile on to make this a race of attrition.
Why The Olympic Road Races Are So Fun to Watch
I find the Olympics to be one of the most enjoyable road races to watch due to its unpredictable and least formulaic nature. There are three main reasons the race is so unique.
1) The course is completely unique. Unlike nearly every other race on the calendar, the course for the Olympic games has never been raced (and in some cases, seen) by any rider in the race before. This means that while we can have a rough idea of how the race will play out and what riders the features will favor, nobody actually knows what the rhythm of the race will be, not even the riders themselves.
2) The race features national, not trade, teams. For 99% of the year, riders race for their trade teams, but at the World Championships and the Olympics, riders race for their national teams. This sets up a slightly awkward situation where rivals like Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen can suddenly find themselves as teammates, while Elisa Longo Borghini and Ruth Winder, who race together on the Trek team for nearly the entire year, are suddenly racing against each other. With this messy national team structure, there is bound to be misaligned incentives and we often see riders from different countries but on the same trade team working together and riders from the same country working to beat one another (see: Van Vleuten leading the chase of Van der Breggen at the Imola Road World Championships in 2020).
3) It is a more individual race. With small teams to begin with (the largest team is only 4 riders), the race is almost impossible to control, and even the ‘flattest’ courses, like London in 2012, produce small and extremely select groups at the finish line. In fact, since allowing professional riders in 1996, there has only been a single bunch sprint in the Women’s race (Sydney 2000). And of course, with only one rider able to grab Olympic glory, there tends to be less teamwork and motivation to pull back moves compared to other races. This allows the strongest individual riders to almost always go to the finish alone to battle each other one-on-one.
The 136km course starts in the outskirts of Tokyo but quickly heads into the countryside to finish on the Fuji Speedway circuit in the shadow of Mt. Fuji after taking on two fairly difficult climbs through the foothills.
While a glance at the profile doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this will be the most exciting and open since, when we look at the 3D version, we can see that nearly the entire course snakes slightly uphill. This means that even though the final large climb tops out nearly 40kms from the finish line, that the peloton is likely to be on the limit by the time we hit the two main climbs (Doshi Road & Kagosaka Pass), and we are likely to see a very select group, almost certain to contain one, if not all, of the Dutch quad of Marianne Voss, Demi Vollering, Van Vleuten, and Van der Breggen.
Also, we can see that this long uphill drag means the course features significantly more climbing meters than Rio in 2016, which produced an incredibly difficult finale and saw Van der Breggen win in a three-rider sprint after dramatically reeling in US climber Mara Abbott inside the final meters.
Major Teams & Number of Riders:
Teams with one rider: Eritrea, Paraguay, Austria, Chile, Belarus, Colombia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Israel, South Korea, Luxembourg, Namibia, Russia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
The Netherlands is tied for the largest team along with Germany, Italy, Australia, and the USA, but they are far and away the favorites to take Gold on Saturday. Their squad has the 2012 winner, Vos, and the 2016 winner, Van der Breggen, possibly the best young rider in the world at the moment, Demi Vollering, and one of the strongest female riders of all time in Annemiek Van Vleuten. Suffice to say, if anyone wants to win gold, they will have an incredibly formidable Dutch team to get through.
The Dutch team is always strong
Favorites & Betting Odds:
Anna van der Breggen +200
Defending champion, racing one of the final races of her career, and thrives on difficult courses like this one. She is coming off a commanding victory at the recent Giro Rosa, which is exactly the preparation she used before her 2016 title in Rio.
Anna van der Breggen
Annemiek van Vleuten +400
A solo breakaway specialist who can seemingly ride away from anyone whenever she wants. She was out in front of the favorites in 2016, and probably would have won, but crashed and broke her back. She will certainly be motivated to win here, but to do it, she probably will have to ride the final 40km solo.
Annemiek van Vleuten
Marianne Vos +550
The 2012 champion and quite possibly one of the best bike racers of all time. She hasn’t been at her best physically this year but proved at Amstel Gold that she can still beat the best if they make the mistake of taking her to the finish line.
Demi Vollering +700
The heir apparent to Dutch cycling has had a breakout season with a runner-up at Amstel Gold and wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Course against the best riders in the world. But, it could be hard for her to find opportunities for herself in such a stacked Dutch squad. If a rider has to be sacrificed to pull back any early move, it will most likely be Vollering, who won’t be able to pull rank.
Elisa Longo Borghini +1400
The Italian is consistently strong but has had a few moments this season where she has sat on and refused to work at the end of races, seemingly to her own detriment. However, she is still consistently one of the strongest riders in the world and could win if the Dutch riders start to squabble.
Elisa Longo Borghini
Ashleigh Moolman +1800
The South African had a relatively quiet spring but has come on strong this summer. Her second place overall behind Van der Breggen at the recent Giro Rosa proved she is on amazing form, but my only concern is that the course won’t be ‘hard’ enough for the climber to shake faster sprinters like Van der Breggen and Vos.
BTP Darkhorse Picks:
The young American is racing one of the last races of her short, but impressive, career and has the skills to hang on the tough climbs and proved at Brabantse Pijl that she can win a reduced sprint if given the chance. And with so much attention being paid to the Dutch riders, Winder will be able to fly completely under the radar.
Despite not walking with any major wins this spring, the Australian was one of the strongest riders in the world. And just like Winder, she will be able to race incognito on Saturday and could surprise an overconfident Dutch team. Also, unlike the Dutch stars, she has a teammate in Tiffany Cromwell who will be dedicated to just working for the team.
The American is one of the biggest, and most interesting, unknowns in this field. Judging by her absolutely thrashing of Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten in the 2019 World TT Championships and her performance being crashing out at the following year’s World TT Championships, she will almost certainly be the strongest rider in the race. But, this is where things get complicated. She hasn’t raced a mass-start road race since the World Championships in 2019 (where she finished 4th), and that race is her only career race outside of North America, which means she has almost no experience racing against the world’s best riders. Since this will leave her racecraft as almost non-existent, she has to get away solo to have a chance at winning the race. This will be extremely difficult against such seasoned and prepared competition.
Where Things Could Get Interesting
Just because the Dutch have the four of the six strongest riders in the race and have the last four World Championships doesn’t mean this is a foregone conclusion. One thing that a rider like Dygert could use to her advantage is the big personalities on the Dutch team. The ages of Van der Breggen, Vos, and Van Vleuten mean that they will all likely see this as their last chance to win another (or the first in Van Vleuten’s case) Olympic gold medal and could hesitate to work together to pull back an attack from a rider like Winder, Dygert, Moolman or Brown in the rolling terrain leading into the Fuji Speedway.
Also, with the Dutch team being such an obvious favorite, strong riders will be incentivized to get into the early breakaway and force Holland, and other strong nations, to burn one, if not more, of their four strong riders to peg back the move before the summit of Kagosaka Pass. This will also put the Dutch in a really difficult position, since one of their riders, all big favorites for the race, would have to sacrifice themselves for the others.
Where/How to Watch
Free: Tiz Cycling
Paid: Peacock Premium (USA), NBC Sports (USA), GCN Racepass (USA + UK VPN), Eurosport Player (Europe, UK).
Broadcast Time: 1:00am – 3:35am EST. (estimate).
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #