By Martyn Herman
TOKYO (Reuters) - Ecuador's Richard Carapaz produced a powerful late burst after six-hour slog to win gold in a thrilling Olympic men's road race as favourite Tadej Pogacar was beaten into third place at the Fuji International Speedway on Saturday.
As expected, Slovenian Pogacar launched his assault for victory on the fearsome Mikuni Pass, a brutal climb around 35 km (22 miles) from the end of a 234km race ridden in hot and humid conditions.
But the Tour de France champion had not counted on the fire within a renowned mountain specialist who prepared himself for the season - and a race route described as one of the hardest in Olympic history with almost 5,000m of climbing - by training on the Cotopaxi Volcano in the Andes.
Carapaz, along with Belgium's eventual silver medallist, Wout van Aert, hunted down Pogacar, and then with around 20km remaining the Ecuadorean seized his chance to take control.
Escaping with American Brandon McNulty on the short Kagosaka climb before a long descent back to the racing circuit finale, the duo put almost a minute on a flagging pack.
It looked like being a straight battle between Carapaz and McNulty as they stole almost two minutes on the chasers.
But the acceleration took its toll on McNulty and as the pack began to reel them in, reducing the gap to 14 seconds at one point, Carapaz decided his only chance for gold was to strike out alone for the finish with 5km remaining.
Nicknamed La Locomotora for his relentless climbing, the South American found another gear and began to extend his lead with every turn of the pedals in front of hundreds of cheering spectators lining the circuit.
With the gold assured he could even enjoy the final turns as the battle for silver raged behind him - crossing the line one minute and seven seconds clear.
WIDTH OF A WHEEL RIM
Pogacar, who a week ago claimed his second successive Tour de France title, was edged out by Van Aert in a sprint finish decided by the width of a wheel rim.
Carapaz, a former winner of the Giro d'Italia, became only the second Ecuadorean to win an Olympic gold after Jefferson Perez in the 20km walk at Atlanta 1996.
"It's an incredible moment for me. You always have to believe. I have worked so hard to be here and it's a huge moment," the 28-year-old from Tulcan told reporters.
"I can only say thank you to them (the Ecuadorean people) for the support and, honestly, for giving us such a big push."
Carapaz is also the first south American to win an Olympic road race dominated in the past by Europeans and expected to have been on Saturday, with Pogacar the favourite.
A breakaway group of dreamers moved 20 minutes clear at one point but the real contenders were just conserving their energy for the climbs that came thick and fast late on.
The forest-flanked 14km Fuji Sanroku climb on Japan's sacred mountain did not produce the expected attacks but took its toll with 2016 gold medallist Greg Van Avermaet emptying the tank in support of Van Aert, Belgium's new superstar.
But it all kicked off later on the Mikuni Pass featuring gradients of up to 20% as sweat-drenched riders began to disappear off the back.
Pogacar initially looked as though he was poised to strike for home, but it was Carapaz's day.
Thankfully the race was spared the big crashes that marred the road races at the Rio Games five years ago, though Britain's Geraint Thomas, one of the medal favourites, hit the tarmac hard in an early incident and eventually pulled out with 50km left.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris and John Stonestreet)