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Anna Kiesenhofer’s life will not be the same again.
The Austrian rider put her name in the history books with her gold medal ride in the women’s road race at the Olympic Games last month, catapulting her into the world’s attention. As the initial media storm dies down, Kiesenhofer has some big decisions to make.
Her inbox has been flooded with offers of sponsorship, partnerships, and other prospective deals. As Kiesenhofer lets the extent of her achievement settle in, she must also figure out what it will mean for her future and where it will take her.
“I need to really sit down and think, what do I want to do with my life. Of course, there are many opportunities opening up,” Kiesenhofer told VeloNews. “I have to choose wisely. Some things are just distractions, and I have to distinguish what projects that I’m really interested in and what are mere distractions.
“I will not start advertising a pair of socks for a few 100 bucks, it’s not worth it. So, I have to focus on the big things.”
What exactly her future with entail, Kiesenhofer doesn’t know quite yet but she does know that it will likely mean letting more cycling into her life. Projects that allow her to combine her passion for mathematics, science, and cycling are of particular interest to the 30-year-old.
“I might make cycling an even the bigger part of my life, in a professional sense, in terms of really working more, and earning money with cycling,” she said. “Not in the teams, but rather like individual projects, working on coaching, mentoring or appearances in public, and also working on products.
“There are many interesting things to do, like working with companies giving input on products, and so on. These are things that interest me, there’s also this intersection with science so, for example, aerodynamics. I mean, maths can play a big role actually in simulations. So, these are some ideas that I have, that might be interesting projects.”
While she might still have some big decisions to make, she already knows that her future will not see a full-time racing contract. She has tried that before but her late switch to bike racing means that she feels uncomfortable riding in a peloton.
Rather than being able to make use of her abilities, she is consumed by thoughts of what might go wrong. It was one of the reasons she was so keen to get into the breakaway at the Olympic Games.
“I don’t see myself in a pro team and just riding and doing what I’m scared of and riding in the bunch,” she told VeloNews. “I’m always very nervous and holding my handlebar too tight. After a few hours, I feel like my hands are getting numb because I was gripping my handlebars. It’s not very relaxing.
“You cannot think about everything that may have, because otherwise, you’re just too scared to continue riding. And well, that’s actually what happens to me. I’m thinking about all the possibilities that we might have to crash. So, I see a corner coming up but then I already visualize the girls and how they are going to take the turn and how they might crash. It’s just not the right mindset to go into races.”
Despite Kiesenhofer’s late adoption of cycling, she quickly made a name for herself as a strong rider and was snapped up by Lotto-Soudal in 2017. However, she contested a limited number of races and left the team at the end of the year.
She had previously sought to make it as a professional, but she found out in a very tough way that it wasn’t for her. Fortunately, she had her studies to go back to.
“It was hard, and it was a disappointment because it had been my goal to be a professional,” Kiesenhofer said. “Then when I was there, it wasn’t what I thought it would be, and I didn’t fit into this environment.
“I didn’t even have to make a decision [to quit] because it was just so clear. I was physically not strong, and I was mentally in a really bad place. So, it was a necessity to stop it. It wasn’t a choice.
“I had finished my Ph.D. and I knew I could do other things in my life. I wasn’t dependent on the cycling thing. I just took a break and found a position at a university. I didn’t even plan to continue with cycling, but it just happened. If you’re like, an endurance freak, you just can’t stop.”
A life-bike balance and trusting authority
Kiesenhofer spent about a week off the bike before she started riding again. Life as a professional may not have been for her, but she couldn’t leave behind life on two wheels.
Ultimately, Kiesenhofer’s initial desire to leave cycling in her past was always destined to fail for the same reasons she is unlikely to leave behind mathematics. She loves it too much.
“There are so many things, I mean, just the effect of moving I just need to move. It just frees my mind. Then you also have this aspect of the heart of training of having to overcome obstacles and having to push through the pain and this gives you a feeling of satisfaction,” Kiesenhofer told VeloNews.
“It’s a bit the same thing with math. Math is a lot about problem-solving and sometimes you sit there for hours, and you stare at a problem, and you don’t manage to solve it. And then if you can solve it after few days, it’s also like this feeling of satisfaction. Of course, there was also this basic interest in science, like understanding how the world works, then you have the language of science, it was the natural thing to study for me.”
With her brief departure from cycling over, Kiesenhofer’s journey towards the Olympic Games continued.
Unlike many of the major favorites for Tokyo, Kiesenhofer has had to balance her training around an often intense full-time job. Getting in the hard miles meant planning her working day around the tough efforts to ensure she wasn’t so physically spent she couldn’t do the work that pays the bills.
Incidentally, the hiatus of many things due to the coronavirus pandemic helped her work-cycle balance.
“The last one of the half years have been even easier for me because I was working from home, so I was very flexible,” she said. “If you’re in the office the whole day, it’s very hard to get in training and also recover. What also helps is that I don’t really have a life, apart from university and sports. So, it really takes up all my time.
“I just have to plan in advance because the training is physically very tiring, but also mentally, so I can’t do complex maths after a long, long ride. I do the complex stuff in the morning. And then I go for a ride around noon, perhaps. When I’m tired, I do stuff that is less taxing like answering emails.”
Amid the talk of her life as a part-time cyclist, one of the quotes that stood out during Kiesenhofer’s winner’s press conference at the Olympic Games was her comment on being skeptical of authority. In her normal day job, Kiesenhofer is a person in authority herself but her time in cycling made her skeptical of many of the decisions made.
“Especially cycling, it’s a very traditional sport, it’s a bit old-fashioned even, and you have all those team structures,” Kiesenhofer said. “Often, it’s middle-aged men commanding a group of young girls. They’re young, they see an opportunity, and they maybe don’t even get to speak up because they’re afraid that the contract might end if they say something.
“You’re in this environment where you just have to believe this middle-aged guy who is your boss. Often the sports directors don’t have much of a clue regarding training. I just wanted to say, you shouldn’t trust them too much. You should continue thinking for yourself and being critical. Listening to people but being critical and not just believing everything.”