Annemiek van Vleuten raised her hands in triumph as she crossed the line on the Fuji Speedway on Sunday.
Van Vleuten was cheering what she thought was an Olympic gold medal only to collapse in despair after learning that breakaway rider Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) raced to a historic win just over one minute ahead of her.
“Ruud, I was wrong, I didn’t realize anything,” van Vleuten was heard telling her soigneur after finishing second.
“I thought I had won,” she later told NOS. “I felt really stupid at first. But then the other girls wondered, too … this is worthless.”
It was a Dutch disaster resulting from reliance on old-school communications.
Olympic protocol dictates that the peloton races without radio earpieces, leaving riders dependent on in-race motorcycles and team cars to relay time gaps. The system broke down for van Vleuten and her all-conquering teammates Sunday as telephone lines between staffers and sport directors went haywire.
“Normally we have signs here for communication. But the telephone line was apparently very bad with Loes [Gunnewijk, sport director],” van Vleuten said. “Such an important course and no communication. This is amateurish”
The Dutchwomen cranked up the pace through the final 10km of the race Sunday as they hunted after a highly anticipated gold medal.
The team of van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen, and Demi Vollering reeled in breakaway riders Omer Shapira (Israel) and Anna Plitcha (Poland) at around four kilometers to go, and the superstar quartet thought the medals were theirs.
Only the Dutchwomen had confused their time splits, and were unaware that Kiesenhofer was charging to Olympic gold alone off the front.
“I did not know in the final that someone was still in the lead. Otherwise, we would of course have handled it differently,” said defending champion van der Breggen.
“I heard from Loes Gunnewijk that Plichta was solo in front, so when we overtook her, we thought we had taken all the escapees back. I didn’t even hesitate, thought we were going for the win.”
With Plitcha and Shapira caught, van Vleuten punched out of the group and blitzed her way to what she had believed was her first Olympic medal.
The 38-year-old’s cheer of celebration soon turned bittersweet when she realized she was second across the line.
The result explained what had appeared to be a misfire from the typically faultless Dutch team.
“I thought that Holland had everything in their hands but in the end sometimes when you play tactics too much and you think you are the strongest, you lose the race,” said bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy). “Basically when we caught the two ladies … I realized there was another one in front.”
Nonetheless, there was still a sense that van Vleuten & Co. had gotten it wrong Sunday.
The Dutch team, along with the rest of the peloton, allowed the breakaway a huge 10-minute lead in the gamble that their superior strength could pull the race back together at a whim.
“We would have done everything to close it up,” van der Breggen said. “Kiesenhofer was up front the whole day, so if we would have gone full gas, we would have come close. You never know if we would have made it.”
That they reeled in Shapira and Plitcha with just four kilometers to go cut it fine, and would have been a masterstroke in timing and tactics – had it not been for the off-radar Kiesenhofer and her against-all-odds triumph.