Annemiek van Vleuten sprinted across the finish line at the Fuji International Speedway circuit and threw her arms aloft in celebration of her first Olympic road race title – oblivious to the fact she had actually won silver.
Van Vleuten had been part of the main pack chasing a six-rider breakaway in the women’s road race. But as they picked the breakers off one by one, they made a mistake: one was left up the road, the Austrian Anna Kiesenhofer, a mathematician who took advantage of their miscalculation to clinch gold.
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Kiesenhofer had gone solo with 40km to go and by that point the only ones who knew where she was her fellow early escapees who had been sucked back into the peloton and back out the other side. A combination of no race radio and small squads were the ingredients for chaos on the foothills of Mount Fuji, as Van Vleuten came in more than a minute behind Kiesenhofer.
Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini won bronze and said she was fully aware of her third-place finish, but Van Vleuten admitted she had no idea. “I didn’t know,” the 38-year-old said afterwards. “I was wrong.”
Britain’s Lizzie Deignan finished 11th and congratulated Van Vleuten during a post-race interview, before being told of the real winner. “I don’t know anything about her,” Deignan said of Kiesenhofer, who has several national titles in Austria but has little form to speak of on the global stage. “She’s definitely a surprise winner.”
The strong Dutch team were left to do much of the work at the front of the peloton and the end result was a disjointed race.
“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.”
Kiesenhofer’s gold is Austria’s first at a summer Olympics since 2004, and first in cycling since Adolf Schmal’s victory in the 12-hour race at the first modern Games in 1896.
“It feels incredible,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. Even when I crossed the line, it was like, ‘Is it done now? Do I have to continue riding?’ Incredible…
“I was just trying to get to the line. My legs were completely empty. I have never emptied myself so much in my whole life. I could hardly pedal any more. It felt like there was zero energy in my legs.”