When the Tokyo Games conclude, one of the most remarkable stories will be that of cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer, who took gold in Sunday’s road race against a field packed full of talent.
The Austrian rider was virtually unknown before Sunday, but after gaining a lead in the opening moments of the 137-kilometer race, she battled through the heat and humidity to take home her country’s first gold medal in Olympic cycling since 1896, the first year the modern Games were held.
Approaching the finish line, she checked over her shoulder once, twice, three times, barely able to believe her eyes. No other riders were in sight.
So unexpected was Kiesenhofer’s victory that when Dutch favorite and Wednesday’s time trial gold medalist Annemiek van Vleuten rode across the finish line into silver, she celebrated believing she had taken the gold.
A coach delivered van Vleuten the bad news a few seconds later, and the silver medalist’s winning smile vanished in shock. Italian Elisa Longo Borghini, the Rio 2016 bronze medalist, took third once again.
“Indeed (I am) very surprised to sit here in the middle,” Kiesenhofer told a news conference after the race. “I was about to go somewhere else in the back of the room. It’s still hard to believe. I think nobody expected me with a medal here, let alone with a win.”
A quick look at Kiesenhofer’s backstory reveals a remarkable talent. She has a master’s degree in mathematics from Cambridge University and works as a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology.
She is her own coach and her pre-race tweets (since deleted) showed her musing on core body temperature training techniques to help her cope with the Tokyo summer heat.
“I plan the training myself. It’s not so sophisticated. I did not do any altitude training camp. I stick to the basics. I’ve stopped believing in miracles,” Kiesenhofer said.
“There was a time when I read many books about sports physiology and sports science, and now I think the best sports science is my own training plan. I’m the mastermind behind my performance.”
The race had been the Dutch team’s to lose. Before the event, not only were they the favorites as a team, but individually the top four riders expected to win were all Dutch. They were no match for the Austrian, however.
Kiesenhofer attacked at the start of the race, forming a breakaway with four other riders. She rode with them up the steep climb of Doshi Road before going solo with 40 kilometers left in the race. Even with the five-woman strong Dutch team leading the peloton behind her, Kiesenhofer would not be seen again until the finish line.
For the past three years, Kiesenhofer has won the Austrian national time trial championships, and won the national road race there in 2019, but she has been without a professional contract since 2017, when she rode for Lotto-Soudal Ladies.
“Yes, I’m an amateur, but in my life cycling takes up a lot of space. Not moneywise, I earn my income in a normal job,” said Kiesenhofer. “But the last 1½ years, I was completely focusing on today, not even knowing that I had a chance, but I was sacrificing everything for a good result, which could even have been coming (in) 25th.”
As Kiesenhofer approached the last kilometer of the race, begging her body not to cramp up, her mouth contorted in a half-grimace, half-smile. Crossing the finish line, she spread her arms wide, barely enough energy to lift them, arriving a minute and 15 seconds ahead of her closest competition.
Social media exploded, wondering whether the Dutch team had known there was still one rider ahead of them, blaming the absence of race radios in Olympic cycling for a lack of communication. But it didn’t matter, Kiesenhofer had ridden a dominant ride, her victory could not be denied.
There, in the finishing pen, she collapsed in tears, her exertion and her victory completely overwhelming, snatching gold against all odds from the expectant hands of the Dutch.
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