In diabolical conditions on the foothills of Mount Fuji, Sarah Storey completed a journey she began 29 years ago as she won her 17th gold medal to become, outright, the most successful British Paralympian of all time.
As rain lashed down and waves of fog rolled across the extended speedway circuit, the 43-year-old Storey crossed the line first in the women’s C4-5 road race in a time of 2:21.51. Her ParalympicsGB teammate, Crystal Lane-Wright claimed silver after the pair saw off the breakaway challenge of the German Kersten Brachtendorf.
British success was mirrored in the men’s C1-3 road race which began shortly afterwards and finished just moments after the women’s race. Benjamin Watson led from the front to claim gold, and he was followed in second place by Graham Finlay for a second one-two. Watson finished the 79.2km course in 2:04.23, with Finlay a minute and 20 seconds behind.
Storey made her maiden Paralympic appearance in Barcelona as a swimmer at the age of 14. She competed in the pool at the following three games and won five gold medals before switching to cycling in 2008. Since then, her success has only accelerated, winning nine medals across the Beijing, London and Rio Games before this latest golden treble in Tokyo finally took her past the total set by the swimmer Mike Kenny between 1976 and 1988.
Expectations before the race had been conditioned by prior experience: an easy Storey win was predicted by all. But it didn’t quite turn out like that. Lane-Wright had hoped to have a say in her strongest event, and the pair were stuck together like glue at the end of the first lap of the course (13.2km), six seconds behind an early break away by French and German riders.
Marie Patouillet was reeled in by the time the second lap had been completed, but Kersten Brachtendorf had extended her lead at the front. Twenty-five seconds behind the German, Storey and Lane-Wright were now part of a chasing group of five riders who appeared content to maintain a controlled pace, with Storey constantly at its head.
As the first hour of the race passed the conditions got worse, with rain intensifying to create torrential conditions around the track. With three laps to go, Brachtendorf had more than a minute’s lead over the Storey group; with four laps down that gap extended to 1:15.
Forty-nine-year-old Brachtendorf, whose best finish at a Games had been fourth place in the road race at London 2012, was exceeding all expectations, but ultimately she returned to earth. Halfway through the penultimate lap the chasers, led by Storey, began to close the gap. Brachtendorf was blowing out, first slowly, then all at once as the chasing group gobbled up the terrain. Storey pulled level with the German as they approached the line for the final circuit, and then she took the lead.
Leaving their fellow chasers behind, the final lap was a contest between the two Britons. But in the end, surely inevitably, it was Storey who prevailed coming over the line seven seconds clear.