The Closest Ever Cycling Road Race at the Olympics | The Olympics On The Record

The Closest Ever Cycling Road Race at the Olympics | The Olympics On The Record


It’s not about how you start,
but how you finish. The finish line
is all that matters and finishing well can mean
the difference between gold and going home with nothing and there’s no event
where this is more evident than road race cycling. This is a competition
where, typically, over 100 of the fittest
athletes on the planet wearing the tightest shorts
imaginable battle it out for around
four-and-a-half hours, covering over 150km, but the result is usually only
decided in the final metre. All those hours on the road,
all those months of training, are all about that last
chaotic sprint. In Tokyo in 1964, this was
taken to unbelievable extremes and the tightest finish
you’re ever likely to see. Being an amateur event, the
peloton contained a random mix of local heroes
and future stars, including several who would
go on to earn the highest accolade
in cycling – a nickname. Felice Grimondi of Italy,
“the Phoenix”, Walter Godefroot of Belgium,
“the Bulldog of Flanders”, and best-known of all,
Belgium’s Eddie Merckx, known as “the Cannibal”. Still an amateur in 1964 and not much known outside
of Belgium, Merckx would go on to be
the greatest road racer in cycling history. With cycling, it’s easy to get
caught up in the speed, the power and the Lycra. It’s important to remember,
though, that each rider is in the midst of not only a physical battle,
but a mental one as well. Tactics, you see, are key. Throughout the bulk of the
race, riders preserve energy by cycling in the slipstream of the riders
just in front of them. They take it in turns. It’s the etiquette of the
peloton – that’s the name for the main
body of cyclists. But then, as the race
nears its later stages, someone picks their moment and goes for it,
leading a breakaway. – Is it my turn?
– Not yet. Etiquette, Jan, etiquette. Once they’ve broken away, this group will battle amongst
themselves until the finish. But the group in Tokyo
was rather large. In fact, so large it had
to be seen to be believed. Why was Tokyo so different? Well, it was a combination of
unusual design and bad weather. A typical top-level
road racing course features a number of climbs of varying degrees
of difficulty that riders must deal with. It’s these hills, the extra
strain they put on the riders and the change in pace
they demand, that help create
the separation. An alpine road race
might include two climbs of 1,000 metres each. The Tokyo course, however, featured just one short climb
of 65 metres. Not the sort of course
that strikes fear into elite cyclists. The competitors
would have to complete eight laps of this course on the outskirts of Tokyo, making the race just short of
195km. That might sound
a daunting distance to you, but you are a mere human. These racers are machines. Much of the race took
place in heavy rain, a very effective deterrent to stifling ambitious
breakaways. No matter how professional
you are, coming off your bike
still hurts and you still want your mum
to make it better. Still, at various stages, different racers did attempt
to go out on their own. The trouble is that breakaways
rarely work. The riders put in a hard shift, then get sucked
back into the mix. The peloton is already going
at around 41kmph, so to try to leave them behind, you’ve got to really put
your foot on the gas. Get your timing wrong
and you won’t have the legs. A bad breakaway attempt
can be enough to end any chance of a medal. So, with no successful
breakaways, the peloton was still intact when they came to
the closing stages and caution had crept in. Over 100 of
the world’s top cyclists seemingly out on
a pleasure ride, nobody prepared
to take a gamble. It would remain so until just a few hundred metres
from the finish line. Then there was only one thing
they could do – sprint. Heads down and pedalling
as hard as they could, 99 cyclists were inseparable. But with just 20 metres to go, Italy’s Mario Zanin and the Dane Kjell Rodian
pulled slightly ahead… ..the Italian
just edging the race by less than 100th of a second. The gap between Zanin in first and Iran’s Sayed Esmail
Hosseini, classified 99th, was two-tenths of a second. Merckx finished 12th –
the man who won everything, except Olympic gold. This was Zanin’s moment. The Italian won
just one other stage race over the rest of his career. He never earned the accolade
of a proper nickname, but we think “Olympic gold
medallist” will do very nicely.

22 Replies to “The Closest Ever Cycling Road Race at the Olympics | The Olympics On The Record”

  1. Lance Armstrong was the greatest. They just didn't have testing back in those days nor the same type of PHDs. However, you know everybody was taking whatever worked back then. First Olympics to start testing was '68 in case anyone is curious.

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