This is the second of my look at my choice of the standout moments from the racing season in 2021.
The Women’s Olympic Road Race, Tokyo, July 25th
“Kiesenhofer stuns Dutch to win Road Gold”.
So read the title of an article on the Reuters website just after the race, and after having seen it live and then seeing this heading, I did wonder if the Austrian might have had a Tazer in her back pocket and zapped them pre-race, but no… it was sheer mental strength and talent that won it, and never mind the bollocks about the lack of race radios!
This was the greatest cycling upset in Olympic history. A heavily favoured Dutch team featuring the greatest cyclist of all time, Marianne Vos, and Annemiek Van Vleuten, who had broken free in the Olympic race in 2016 on the final climb only to crash and be unable to finish.
The Dutch team looked certain to be able to push one of their riders to victory, but then along came Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria to destroy the Dutch dreams by pulling off a solo win that took the breath away.
Not much was known about Kiesenhofer outside of a small circle of cycling fans. She turned professional in 2017 but quit in the same year. From 2018 on, she trained herself, without a coach, using her PhD in mathematics to guide her. (My old team mate who now runs a woman’s team in the Netherlands actually tried to sign her pre-Olympics, but she said no, explaining that she doesn’t like to ride in the peloton – as she showed in Japan!).
“As a mathematician you’re used to solving problems on your own, so that’s the way I approach cycling,” she said.
Kiesenhofer was part of a 6-woman breakaway that formed after just 3km but with none of the race favourites in the group, the main peloton were content to allow the to ride away. Big mistake!
With 90km of the 137km route (featuring 2692m of climbing) to go, the breakaway, now consisting of just three riders including Kiesenhofer, had a 10 minute gap over the peloton. Behind them, there was now a sense of growing concern. Several strong riders decided to take it upon themselves to chase down the three leaders but none could make much of a dent in the time difference.
With still 41km to go, Kiesenhofer suddenly attacked on a shallow rise, much to the commentators alarm. “She’s going too early!”, one shouted. But Kiesenhofer had done the math and believed she could get to the line first. Her two companions faded and now it was just her against the pack.
With 20km to go she had a 4 minute lead still in hand. Behind her the peloton was chasing hard but was hampered by a series of attacks that slowed down the pace. Up ahead, the Austrian’s face was distorted by pain, yet still she hung on.
“It was pretty extreme. I have never emptied myself that much in my life, I just killed every single muscle firewall in my legs,” she said later.
She finally crossed the line with a 1.15 minute lead over Van Vleuten, who thought she had in fact won, blaming the lack of radio earpieces on her mistake.
But the day belonged to Anna Kiesenhofer. It was a victory that brought a tear to the eye of all who witnessed it.
“It was unrealistic because nobody would have believed it. It was just incredible. I couldn’t believe it, even crossing the line I couldn’t believe it,” Kiesenhofer said afterwards.
Vos confirmed that later. “I bet it’s easy after the race to say it was a mistake. You try to make the calculations and it’s a small team so it’s not easy to make the right decisions and we didn’t think Kiesenhofer would be so strong but she had a really strong ride.”
Chapeau to Kiesenhofer. And an Olympic gold medal, the first ever for an Austrian woman in cycling.