There’s blowing away a field in an Olympic race, and then there’s blowing a field so much that the silver medalist thought she was the gold medalist. Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer shocked the world on Sunday with a runaway victory in the women’s cycling road race at the Tokyo Olympics.
After breaking away from the peloton early in the race, Kiesenhofer finished ahead of the field by more than a minute. That massive gap would prove to be unfortunate for Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands, who crossed the finish line 1 minute and 15 seconds after Kiesenhofer and immediately started celebrating as if she won gold.
Annemiek van Vleuten thought she won gold. She didn’t. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)
As it turned out, that’s exactly what she was doing. To be fair to Van Vleuten, she wasn’t the only cyclist in the race who believed she won gold. British cyclist Elizabeth Deignan, who finished 11th, congratulated the Dutch cyclist for her win in an interview with the BBC.
Anna Kiesenhofer broke away early.
How does a breakaway cyclist stay in front of a peloton for so long that the rest of the field seemingly forgets she exists? It started with Kiesenhofer being one of three women breaking away from the pack early in the race, then breaking away again by herself to grab a massive lead.
The peloton eventually caught the other two and might have just assumed there was no one else ahead. There was no way for the field to know of Kiesenhofer’s place as there are no radios used in the road race, and Van Vleuten would have been especially unlikely to be aware of how the race began as she was involved in an early crash.
All of that added up to Van Vleuten, the pre-race favorite, crossing the finish line, not realizing Kiesenhofer had spent pretty much the whole day with a chasmic lead for first place. That’s a fierce ending for Van Vleuten, who was in line for a win in the same event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro until she crashed out late in the race and had to be hospitalized with spinal fractures and a concussion.
As for Kiesenhofer, it’s hard to understate the improbability of her win. The Austrian entered the race as the only cyclist from her country, leaving her with no teammates for help. She hadn’t raced with a professional team since 2017. She is 30 years old, participating in her first Olympics. And outside of her cycling career, she’s a postdoctoral researcher in mathematics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.