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Anna Kiesenhofer on Tokyo Olympics win: ‘So many people have emailed saying it inspires them’

Anna Kiesenhofer captured the world's attention with her goliath-beating win in the Tokyo road race. VeloNews talks to the new Olympic champion about how she's coping with her new fame.

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Anna Kisenhofer’s feet have hardly touched the ground since her shock road race victory at the Olympic Games.

The Austrian went from comparative unknown to worldwide fame in the blink of an eye to take the gold medal in Tokyo last month, the first cycling gold for Austria since the 1896 Games.

A mathematician and university lecturer, Kiesenhofer dedicated her spare time to training and racing. The story of an amateur rider getting the better of the pros has captured the world’s interest and the 30-year-old has been taken aback by the response.

Also read: Anna Kiesenhofer: The mathematician who carved an unconventional path to Tokyo Olympic success

“It has been crazy,” Kisenhofer told VeloNews in a video call Thursday morning. “Since it was a surprise victory for many or for everybody, it was just very overwhelming. I’m not used to this kind of media attention.

“In a sense, I’m a hobby cyclist because I have a full-time day job. So, I’m really not used to spending so much time with interviews and also getting contacted by so many sponsors, and people are offering stuff.”

Kiesenhofer is not a “hobby cyclist” through lack of interest from top teams, but it is a personal choice for her. She spent a year racing as a professional in 2017 but stepped away to carve her own path in the sport.

Since her Olympic victory, the interest has been heightened, but Kiesenhofer isn’t jumping to any major decisions without some thought.

“I’m mainly trying to manage it on my own, but I want to reach out to some people to help me actually because I just don’t have any experience. You can easily like make the wrong deals if you don’t really know what your worth actually for sponsors, for example,” she said.

Also read: Communication breakdown won’t overshadow Hollywood ending for Anna Kiesenhofer

One thing Kiesenhofer is sure about is that she won’t be signing a full-time racing contract. She wants to keep racing, but on her own terms.

The whirlwind of media interviews, sponsor offers, and traveling home from Tokyo has given Kiesenhofer little time to really appreciate what she has achieved. However, the gold medal is more to her than just that dramatic race in Japan, it is the culmination of lots of work and other victories along the way.

“I didn’t even have the time to be too emotional. I was so busy just telling my story during interviews that I didn’t really have time for myself to think about the medal and what is behind it. It’s just lying around at the moment, and I hope I find the time to really reflect for myself,” she told VeloNews.

“It has a lot of symbolic value for me because it stands for all the work I put into this race and also all the other small races that I worked really hard for it that nobody noticed. You work a bit more if you’re going to the Olympics, but the essence of it wasn’t that different. I worked the same way for any small race in my hometown. Nobody sees it, and I just go away with a smile and a bar of chocolate maybe.

“Here, I do the same work but just two percent more and I go away with a gold medal and the attention of the whole world.”

Since racing away with gold, Kiesenhofer has had many people reaching out to say she has inspired them to get on a bike.

While many of us could only imagine reaching the level needed to win Olympic gold, there is something tangible in seeing a person with a day job dedicating their time to a passion.

“It’s crazy because it kind of touches so many people like I get emails from people like from professors in mathematics, from feminists,” said Kiesenhofer. “I don’t know but it just inspires so many people so that’s kind of what makes it special.”

Taking chances

While there was a lot of talk around race radios and the lack of them for the Olympic Games, Kiesenhofer’s win was about her taking a chance. She knew that if she stayed in the peloton throughout the race that her opportunity to take a decent result would be minimal.

The same thought went through her mind as she attacked the last two of her four breakaway companions on the final climb of the day. Many questioned the reasoning behind her move, but Kiesenhofer wasn’t going for gold at that moment. She just wanted to stay out as long as possible and give herself the best chance of securing a top-10.

Also read: Anna Kiesenhofer surprises the Dutch with huge breakaway win

“That was really a gut feeling during the race. I hadn’t really planned that,” she said of the attack. “I thought, eventually, the peloton would catch up, and I would just end up in a reduced group you know, maybe do a top 10 if it’s a small group. So, everything that happened wasn’t really my plan. I wouldn’t have thought that we would get such a big gap.

“At the end of this long climb, I realized I was the strongest because I went to the front just because I felt like we were riding very slowly. The others were hurting and I wasn’t hurting, and it surprised me because we were really not going fast. They started to be a bit reluctant to do turns on the front on the flat part along the lake. And I thought, “if you’re riding like that the peloton will catch us”. So, then there was one small climb left and I had to attack.

“I knew I am a good time trialist, so I had absolute confidence that if the others are not working, I’m just much faster on my own.”

Anna Kiesenhofer went solo over the final climb at the Tokyo Olympics not realizing what it would mean for her
Anna Kiesenhofer went solo over the final climb at the Tokyo Olympics not realizing what it would mean for her Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Kiesenhofer was still racing for anything she could get at this point, and with the limited information available to herself and the other riders, she didn’t dare to believe until she crossed the line that she’d actually won gold.

“Even 100 meters before the line, I was still worried like that suddenly there would be a flash of orange passing me. Of course, there was the board showing me the times. So, it was okay, and it would have been clear that I was about to win but I didn’t fully trust the board,” she said.

“I thought maybe they forgot a rider or maybe they didn’t update the times. That they had the wrong information. I didn’t want to take any risks of losing the race, because I didn’t go hard enough. I was never sure I would win. Only when I really crossed the line, I realized I had won.”

Just over a minute after Kiesenhofer crossed the line, Annemiek van Vleuten celebrated as she thought she had claimed the gold. It was only a few moments later she could be heard saying “I got it wrong” as she realized the title wasn’t hers.

Social media was alight with people criticizing van Vleuten for seemingly not congratulating Kiesenhofer but the Austrian said she could hardly have been nicer. Kiesenhofer wasn’t even aware until the following day that there had been any confusion over the race win.

“When we went to the podium, I didn’t even know about the confusion that Annemiek had regarding her second. She was so composed and so nice that there was nothing like indicating that there was such a big confusion,” said Kiesenhofer. “I saw comments that she didn’t congratulate me and stuff like that.

“I don’t know if she actually said congratulations, but she was just super nice. Indirectly, she congratulated me. At any rate, the day after, she contacted me again, directly, and we had a chat and I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you didn’t know that you were second and I found this great how you behaved, and I would never have been able to be so composed.’”