‘Race smart’: Australia’s Olympic road cyclists target dominant Dutch

Australia has sent four female cyclists to Tokyo with podium potential in Sunday’s road race. There is just one problem: so have the Dutch. A squad of two-time world championship medallist Amanda Spratt, Grace Brown, Tiffany Cromwell and Sarah Gigante give Australia a strong deck of cards across the 137km course. But they will have to be at the top of their game to beat the Netherlands’ fearsome contingent of reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen, reigning Olympic gold medallist Annemiek van Vleuten, three-time world champion Marianne Vos and young star Demi Vollering.

The Australians know they face an uphill climb this weekend. “It is difficult, because they have basically brought a team of winners,” said Brown during the week. “But that’s also one of their weaknesses – they don’t have any workers. There are certain situations where they will have to sacrifice someone, and if they don’t they’ll lose the race. I don’t know how they’re going to manage that, but it’s something we can work with. Instead of trying to match them, we have to work around them and race really smart.”

The women’s course is tough, albeit without the same level of climbing as the men. If anything, that will make it a more interesting race. “The course itself isn’t really decisive – the climbing isn’t super steep – it’s not like the top climbers in the world can just ride away from everyone else,” said Brown. Beginning in suburban Tokyo, the peloton will head out of the city through rolling terrain, before a slow-burn, 40-odd-kilometre ascent. “It’s quite taxing – it could definitely split the field if it’s ridden hard,” she added. There will then be a long descent from Kagosaka Pass, before a 20-kilometre final section at the Fuji International Speedway.

Brown says the Australians plan to race as a team. “We’re a really good unit,” she said. “The four women that are here all have the same focus for the road race, a combined goal. If Sarah Gigante gets in a move that goes to the line, if she can get a medal, that’s amazing. If it’s Spratty, or myself, or Tiff – the goal is the get the best result we can as a team, it doesn’t necessarily matter who that is.”

Instead of trying to match them, we have to work around them and race really smart
In the men’s race, which begins on Saturday morning, Australia has two climbing options with veteran Richie Porte and young star Lucas Hamilton, plus a road captain in the form of BikeExchange’s Luke Durbridge. All three participated in the recent Tour de France, although Hamilton injured his shoulder mid-race and was forced to withdraw. But Hamilton’s wounds have healed enough for him to take to the road in Tokyo, for what promises to be a gruelling day in the saddle.

“It’s hot, it’s humid, and there’s a lot of climbing,” said the 25-year-old. While neither Porte nor Hamilton are considered a favourite, they both have the climbing legs to spring a surprise – and Olympic road races are known for being unpredictable. It is a shame for the Australians that Jack Haig, another rider on the Tour de France injury list, was unable to recover in time – he was in the best form of the trio.

Following a weekend of road race action, attention will turn to the time trial next Wednesday. Rohan Dennis is among the medal favourites in the men’s race against the clock. The South Australian was the undisputed king of the discipline for much of the past five years, winning consecutive world titles in 2018 and 2019, but was dethroned by Italy’s Filippo Ganna in the most-recent championships.

Dennis has bad memories from his last Olympic outing, where a mechanical issue cruelled his medal hopes. But the lumpy course in Tokyo might give him the edge over Ganna and the opportunity to add individual gold to his London 2012 track cycling silver medal.

In the women’s time trial, both Brown and Gigante are expected to start. The former was national champion in 2019, while the latter has reigned supreme in both 2020 and 2021 (with Brown second on both occasions). With that pedigree, both members of the duo is a medal chance in Tokyo. Asked on Thursday if she was targeting the road race or the time trial, Brown was giving nothing away: “I have equal interest in both events,” she laughed. BikeExchange’s Brown finished third in the stage four individual time trial at the recent Giro Rosa, while Gigante – a 20-year-old prodigy – is capable of anything on her day.

With medal chances in both time trials and the women’s road race, the road action in the days ahead provides a perfect entrée for further medal hopes in the BMX racing and freestyle, the mountain bike cross-country and a slate of track action in the second week.

Over the past year, AusCycling performance director Simon Jones liked to muse that the hardest part of the 2020 Olympics was turning up, amid the challenges of the pandemic. But now that Australia cyclists have turned up in Tokyo, they have loftier ambitions: gold medals.