It’s the stories of individual brilliance, of overcoming adversity and the triumph of the underdog that makes the Olympic Games so special. In this regard the Women’s Road Race delivered on all fronts.
The race of 137km followed undulating rises to reach the Kagosaka Pass before finishing at the Fuji International Speedway, home to the Japanese Grand Prix. It was the multiplicity of rises along the route that provided ample opportunity for breakaway riders to take their chance and it was in this fashion that Anna Kiesenhofer masterminded her victory.
It didn’t take long before Kiesenhofer took her chance and surged away from the peloton in the first breakaway attempt of the race. With 100km of the race left to go this group had gained a 10-minute advantage on the peloton but with none of them considered serious contenders, the main body of the race paid little attention.
This underestimation of the strength and endurance of those in the breakaway was compounded by lacking communication as team radios are banned in the Olympic road race. Somewhat controversially, the peloton weren’t aware of who was out in front or that Kiesenhofer remained ahead after others had been reeled in.
Controversy does not take away from Kiesenhofer’s brilliance, however, with around 40km to go and still with an advantage over the peloton she kicked again to go solo. No easy feat to ride hard and fast for that distance alone.
The Austrian cyclist is notable for her unique attitude to the race and preparation which put her as an outside bet for a gold medal. Her story is made all the more impressive by the fact she took control of all her nutrition, training and race strategy having not been part of a team since leaving Lotto-Soudal in 2017.
An individualist through and through, Kiesenhofer spoke after the race about her scepticism of coaches as she believes “those who say that they know, don’t know”. Her gamble, or rather calculation, to push for the lead early and hold on certainly paid off.
The cyclist, who holds a PhD in applied mathematics, certainly doesn’t fit the mould of a traditional road racing cyclist. As the sole representative of Austria no one gave her a chance against the professional unit of the four strong Dutch team.
I dare to be different. People didn’t predict, people didn’t think that I might win
– Anna Kiesenhofer
This unpredictability is what Kiesenhofer credits her gold medal with as she remained uncatchable right up to the finish line to gain victory in the Women’s Olympic Road Race. “I dare to be different. (…) People didn’t predict, people didn’t think that I might win.”
Such an approach is both bold but befitting the true spirit of the Olympic Games. Not part of a professional team, Kiesenhofer technically constitutes an amateur rider. Nor did she rely on the Austrian federation for support. This independence makes her a truly remarkable competitor who can take credit for every aspect of her Olympic wining race.
It was precisely the unexpected nature of her title that led Dutch rider, Annemiek van Vleuten, to believe she was champion as she crossed the finish line unaware Kiesenhofer had not been caught by the peloton. It raised questions of whether radios should be allowed in the event as many riders were seen to be asking cameramen and support vehicles for updates throughout the race with little success.
Van Vleuten achieved a well-deserved gold in the time trial to help overcome this mishap in the road race and Kiesenhofer’s astounding individual effort should certainly not be overshadowed by the bizarre circumstances surrounding it.
An individual racer, she finished in the most fitting way, alone and ahead on the Fuji International Speedway. The maths professor certainly played the underdog well and rode her way into Austrian sporting history.
The men’s race, completed a day earlier, saw a breakaway much closer to the finish from Richard Carapaz that earned him the gold medal and the success he had been hinting at throughout this year’s Tour de France. The making of another national hero as he won Ecuador’s second ever Olympic gold medal.
Olympic cycling in Tokyo certainly hasn’t disappointed.