Long before pros were allowed to race, the Olympic Games were all about amateur competition.
That changed in 1996, at least for professional cyclists, but on Sunday, Anna Kiesenhofer reconfirmed the Olympic spirit with a stunning solo victory that upturned the top pro riders in the elite women’s road race.
“It feels incredible. I couldn’t believe it,” the Austrian said. “Even when I crossed the line, it was like, ‘Is it done now? Do I have to continue riding?’ Incredible!”
Kiesenhofer’s fairytale victory, however, is being overshadowed by a growing controversy about real-time time splits, and pre-race favorites Dutch team and others believing that they were racing for the gold medal in the closing kilometers, not second place.
Interesting reading this debate on women’s race. My take? Riders do 70 some race days a year with radios, then one magical day they get taken away. And they have to read scribbled chalk 100m away on the back of a motorbike while their heart rate is maxed out. What could go wrong?
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) July 25, 2021
Silver medalist Annemiek van Vleuten celebrated at the finish line believing she’d just won the gold medal, only to be told that, in fact, she was the silver medalist.
A clearly disappointed Van Vleuten could not hide her dismay, saying, “we’ve won nothing.”
“When I crossed the line, I thought I had won,” van Vleuten said. “Now it’s the three of us standing here and wondering who has actually won. I’m gutted about that, of course.”
Defending Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen said the team also shared a burden of the responsibility to make sure they knew what was going on in the race even if they didn’t have race radios.
“The worst part about it is that it’s because of the (lack of) information,” she said. “Of course, it’s also up to us, maybe we should have asked more. … The only information we had was from the car or from a motorcycle, which passed by every 10 minutes or so. I was told that [Poland’s Anna Plichta] was up front, so when I caught up with her, I thought we were in the lead.”
When two stragglers were reeled in with about 4km to go, the Dutch and many others in the bunch believed they were the last of the breakaway riders, and that the gold medal was up for grabs.
Why the miscue?
In Olympic competition, unlike the world championships and other international races, race radios are not allowed. Riders receive time checks from team cars, in-race motorcycles, and sometimes from fans on the side of the road.
Anna Kiesenhofer, cyclist, turned academic, turned Olympic champion on debut and after spending an entire day at the front of the race. Not bad for someone who entered without a trade team contract. That’s for me what the Games are about. #Tokyo2020 #Olympics
— Sophie Smith (@SophieSmith86) July 25, 2021
Somehow wires — and egos — were crossed.
Van Vleuten and others believed they were racing for gold, but Kiesenhofer was up the road and about to deliver one of the most emotional road race victories in Olympic history.
Kiesenhofer, meanwhile, stood alone at the finish line with only a handful of her competitors congratulating her, in part because no one exactly knew what had happened.
Even when it became apparent to the others she had just won gold, the after-race TV cameras showed only a few of her opponents congratulating her.
“I was just trying to get to the line. My legs were completely empty,” Kiesenhofer said. “I have never emptied myself so much in my whole life. I could hardly pedal anymore. It felt like there was zero energy in my legs.”
Kiesenhofer — who last raced as a pro in 2017 — went up the road with a daring attack from the gun, and with her fellow escapees, built up a 10-minute lead midway through the race. The heavily favored Dutch, which had won the two previous gold medals, were slow to take up the chase.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
The 30-year-old semi-pro Austrian packs an amazing back-story.
She raced professionally for just one season, in 2017 with Lotto Soudal Ladies, but after losing her contract, she kept training and racing. She also completed a Ph.D. in mathematics along the way.
She won a stage at Mont Ventoux in the 2016 Tour de l’Ardèche, her only other major international victory before Sunday.
Mont Ventoux and an Olympic gold medal — talk about picking your targets.
Her underdog, Hollywood-ending gold medal Sunday reflects what the Olympics are and should be about.
"Anna Kiesenhofer studied mathematics at the Technical University of Vienna. She then studied at the University of Cambridge. She took a four-year PhD at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and she completed her studies in 2016."
Alternative Wiki: "Too talented."
— Daniel Lloyd (@daniellloyd1) July 25, 2021
Anna Kiesenhofer making Austrian Olympic history
Not only did she upset the pre-race favorites, Kiesenhofer made Austrian Olympic history in the Summer Games.
She is just the second Austrian to win a cycling medal in any Olympic discipline. The first? All the way back in 1896, when Adolf Schmal won one gold medal and two bronze medals in track cycling some 125 years ago.
She is also Austria’s first Summer Games gold medalist since 2004, when Kate Allen won gold in women’s triathlon, and two others won gold in sailing.
Though Austria is a major player in the Winter Games, Austria doesn’t win many golds once the snow melts. She is just the fourth Austrian woman to win a gold medal in any Summer Games competition.
Now that’s history.
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) July 25, 2021
Podium records also for van Vleuten and Longo Borghini
At 38, Annemiek van Vleuten is the oldest woman to win an Olympic medal in the women’s road race, surpassing the mark held by French legend Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, who was 37 when she won gold in 1996.
With bronze, Elisa Longo Borghini, also third in 2016 Rio de Janeiro, becomes the fourth female cyclist to win two medals in the Olympic road race since 1984. Longo-Ciprelli, Emma Johansson, and Monique Knol also won two medals in the women’s road race.
Mathieu van der Poel hoping to bounce from yellow to gold
All eyes will be on Mathieu van der Poel in Monday’s elite men’s mountain bike race at Izu.
Van der Poel won the second stage of the Tour de France, and spent six days in the yellow leader’s jersey before leaving the Tour early to prepare for the Olympics.
“It’s the biggest sporting event. It would be very cool to carry the title of Olympic champion,” van der Poel said this week.
Van der Poel put the Olympic Games at the center of his ambitions and tried to balance road racing and some off-road events into his busy calendar that also includes cyclocross.
The 2019 European mountain bike champion raced in 10 World Cup wins during the past two years, and was leading the World Cup standings when he left to prepare for the Tour.
Now he’s hoping there’s been enough time to make the transition back to the dirt after lighting up the first week of the Tour.
“It’s very difficult to just switch,” he said. “I got out of the Tour with a really good shape and then I took some rest before I started training specifically on the mountain bike.
“The level will be high and I haven’t done any mountain bike competition since Nové Město, so that’s also a question mark for me,” he said. “Together with the team, I have prepared as well as possible. I have to do it with the legs that I have.”
Michael Woods ‘kind of satisfied’ with fifth in road race
Michael Woods was content but wanted more in Saturday’s men’s road race, where he was fifth in the grueling race, just missing the medals.
“I tried to race as aggressively as possible. I needed to have separation to get a medal. I attacked as much as I could, because I was not going to beat [Wout van Aert],” Woods said. “I tried everything, but van Aert was shutting down everything. He was just too strong.”
Fifth was Canada’s best Olympic result in the men’s race since Steven Bauer won silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and Michael Barry was ninth in Beijing in 2008.
“It was a beautiful course. The heat was exceptionally significant, but (it was an) amazing course, I loved it,” Woods said. “I’m kind of satisfied. No medal, unfortunately, but I raced a good race, so I can’t be disappointed.”
What’s next: Men’s cross country mountain bike
The world’s best mountain bikers converge Monday in Izu for the elite men’s Olympic mountain bike race.
Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock will be looking to upset the full-time mountain bikers on their turf. Christopher Blevins will line up for USA Cycling.
The race starts at 15:00 local time.
— UCI MTB (@UCI_MTB) July 25, 2021