As we look towards tomorrow’s individual time trial event, many of us are still trying to process what happened at the women’s road race on Sunday. In one of the most significant surprise victories in Olympic road racing history, Austrian rider Anna Kiesenhofer rode to a gold medal victory in Tokyo, with Annemiek van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini scoring silver and bronze medals, respectively. 

When van Vleuten initially crossed the finish line, though, she threw her hands in the air to celebrate having won the race, causing an awkward moment for everyone, including other riders like Lizzie Deignan who congratulated her on the win. Kiesenhofer, who has been without a professional contract since 2017 and was riding without teammates, had meanwhile passed the finish line over a minute ago. So, how did this happen?

Make them forget you’re even there

Despite the upset, anyone who watched the race will not dispute Kiesenhofer’s dominance and much-deserved win. The 30-year-old was on the attack from the very start of the 137-kilometre race to the Fuji International Speedway, and was so successful that she ended up going solo for the final 40 km.

She attacked from the drop of the flag along with Carla Oberholzer, Vera Looser, Omer Shapira and Anna Plichta, and built up a lead that stretched to 11 minutes at one point. It was with just over 50 km remaining when Van Vleuten, meanwhile, decided to launch an attack.

It proved to be too little too late, though. On the Kagosaka Pass, Kiesenhofer made a race-defining move, dropping the two remaining riders in the break. The deal was pretty much sealed at this point. And despite her efforts, Van Vleuten was then reeled back with 25 km of racing remaining, and the field arrived at the finishing circuit with Shapira, Plichta and Kiesenhofer still out front.

Anna Kiesenhofer
Kiesenhofer after the surprising win. © Profimedia

With the two former breakaway riders being caught in the final 5 km, the team of the Netherlands readied themselves for the finish, with Van Vleuten attacking in the last 2 km and Elisa Longo Borghini following in pursuit—not realising that their fate has already been decided.

Communication breakdown

Of course, it still seems hard to imagine that the Dutch had completely lost track of the fact that Kiesenhofer was in the lead. There are a few things unique to Olympic racing that contributed to the confusion, though. For example, no radios are allowed at the Olympics, unlike other professional races, making it difficult to know where riders stand on the road.

Secondly, the fact that the peloton was populated by small squads—only five nations had the full complement of four riders—likely contributed to the chaos that resulted in Van Vleuten’s confusion when she crossed the line 75 seconds after Kiesenhofer.

“I’m gutted,” van Vleuten said. “With five kilometres to go, Marianne came up to me, none of us knew if everyone was caught back. This is an example of what happens if you ride an important race like this without communication.”

Not a great look for the women’s peloton

The Dutch weren’t the only ones who were confused, either. Lizzie Deignan, who finished 11th for Great Britain, congratulated Van Vleuten in her post-race interviews before realising the actual winner.

“I don’t know anything about her,” Deignan said of Kiesenhofer after the fact. “She’s definitely a surprise winner.”

“There was a huge lack of information,” Deignan added. “Probably the Dutch dominance before the race worked against me in the end. Nobody committed. In my position as a sole rider, there was nothing I could do, and I was surprised by the lack of collaboration.”

Other riders had stronger words for how they felt about the quality of the race. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, the Danish all-rounder who finished just ahead of Deignan in 10th, wasn’t satisfied with the way things played out all. “That is completely absurd,” she said in a report from Danish news outlet Ekstra Bladet.

She later went on to tell the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), “If I’m to be completely honest, then this [race/what happened] was sh*t. It was a pretty bad representation of female cycling.”

So, who is this surprise Austrian winner? 

Nevertheless, Sunday’s race proves that the women’s peloton is anything but predictable and that there is still room for upsets as the sport continues coming into its own.

So what of this surprise Olympic champion? The Austrian rider—who became the first Austrian rider to stand atop the Olympic podium since Adolf Schmal at the 1896 games in Athens—certainly had an unconventional path to gold in Tokyo. Despite a promising early career, she left the sport in 2017 when she could not secure a team to take her on.

She returned several years later, in 2019, as an amateur rider and won the Austrian national road race and time trial championship titles. She ended up entering the Olympics with a trade team and no professional contract. Aside from her cycling pursuits, she is also a holder of a PhD in mathematics and studied in Vienna and Cambridge before completing her doctorate in Catalonia in 2016. She currently combines teaching and research at the University of Lausanne.

Anna Kiesenhofer
Celebrating the win. © Profimedia

An impressive resume, even without adding ‘Olympic gold medallist’! So, despite the flurry of emotion that will ultimately characterise this year’s women’s road race, we’ll leave you with the words of the woman who won it:

“I had planned to attack from kilometre zero, and I was happy to be able to put myself at the front. I’m happy that I wasn’t too scared and just dared to do it. I attacked, and in the group, we more or less worked together. I saw that I was the strongest, and I knew I could use the climb before the long descent.

In the end, I just tried to reach the line. My legs were completely empty. I have never exerted myself like that in my life. I could barely pedal. It felt like there was no energy left in my legs at all […] It’s just incredible. I really sacrificed so much for this day. I didn’t expect to perform like this. I would have sacrificed everything for a top-15 finish too, but to have this triumph now for all the effort is such a great reward.”

We congratulate Anna Kiesenhofer on her stunning win and look forward to more Olympic cycling action in the weeks to come!