Road Cycling

The tightest finish to a road cycling race in Olympic history

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at a chaotic road race peloton which saw a two-tenths of a second gap between gold and 99th position.

The background

Cycling. It's a sport that's been part of the Olympic programme since the first modern Games that took place in Athens in 1896.

The margins between glory and failure are often extremely small, but what happened at Tokyo 1964 was truly remarkable.

During the men's individual road race, 139 athletes from 37 countries needed to cover 194.832km, with much of the race taking place under heavy rain.

Six days before the 22 October race, the first portion of the road cycling competition took place - the road team time trial, which saw the Netherlands win gold, Italy silver and Sweden bronze. As a result, cyclists from those countries were also expected to be the favourites in the individual road race, but with only amateur riders competing it was difficult to predict the winners.

Among the field there were some promising stars including Felice 'The Phoenix' Grimondi from Italy, Walter 'The Bulldog of Flanders' Godefroot from Belgium and his compatriot Eddy 'The Cannibal' Merckx.


The moment

Normally in road cycling, a breakaway group of cyclists will peel away from the peloton, but something quite different occurred at Tokyo 1964.

This breakaway was something that has to be seen to be believed.

The Tokyo Olympics road race course was quite unusual when compared to a typical race. Normally, breakaways occur on the climbs, but the Tokyo 1964 course included only a single short climb of 65m.

While some cyclists did attempt to break away from the pack they failed to maintain their lead, so as the finish line drew near the peloton was still packed with riders. It left the entire group with one opportunity to claim a medal - the final sprint.

Heads down, legs pushing with all their might, a huge group of cyclists battled to the finish. And after a phenomenal final push, the gold was determined by mere hundredths of a second, with 51 riders clocking 4:39:51.

Italy's Mario Zanin (4:39:51.63) finished the race in first, followed by Denmark's Kjell Rodian (4:39:51.65) and Walter Godefroot from Belgium (4:39:51.74).

But the distance between gold medallist Zanin and 99th placed Sayed Esmail Hosseini from Iran was officially timed at only two-tenths of a second.

It was the tightest finish ever at the Olympics.

What happened next?

Despite becoming an Olympic champion, Zanin never reached the same heights again - only winning a single stage in the 1966 Vuelta a España. Rodian retired from international competition after Tokyo 1964, competing only in local races in Denmark.

Meanwhile, bronze medallist Godefroot went on to win the green jersey at the 1970 Tour de France and several important races including the Paris–Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. After retirement, he continued to work in the world of cycling, even becoming directeur sportif of a professional team.

But in order to find the cyclist who would go on to have the most successful post-Games career, you would need to look away from the podium. Eddy Merckx, known as 'the Cannibal', finished 12th at Tokyo 1964 and is considered one of the greatest road cyclists ever.

He won five Giro d'Italia, five Tour de France and one Vuelta a España. He also continues to hold the record for most Le Tour stage wins (34) and has won the most Grand Tours (11) and joint-most World Championships (three).

Looking ahead to Tokyo 2020, there will be a different start and finish point, with the men's race covering 244km from Musashinonomori Park. The course will not be as simple as the one seen at Tokyo 1964, with 4,865m of total elevation providing multiple breakaway opportunities for the cyclists.

So - perhaps sadly - it is unlikely we will see a repeat of the astonishing finish that took place 56 years ago in Japan.