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Anna Kiesenhofer, Annemiek van Vleuten and the Shock in Tokyo

Release Date: January 17, 2024

In our conversation with Olympic road cyclist Coryn Labecki, we got the scoop on one of the more amazing podium outcomes of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Coryn finished in 7th in this race as part of a small group that finished just behind who everyone thought were the leaders….until they all realized that someone had finished long before them.

The favorite in the road race was Annemiek van Vleuten, who hails from cycling powerhouse Netherlands and was a 2-time world champion. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, the cycling road race course had a very long, steep, windy downhill section, which took out three of the leaders in the men’s competition earlier in the Games. Van Vleuten was in the lead and had maneuvered expertly around many of the curves when she suddenly slid out on a high speed turn, lost control of the bike, and hit a curb. She flipped over her handlebars, and crashed to the pavement. It was an incredibly scary moment in the race:

She suffered a concussion and three fractures in her spine.

Amazingly, she later told Cycling Weekly that it was the best race of her career thus far.

Yet, after that devastating loss, van Vleuten wanted redemption. And the expectations were great.

Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer was a time trials specialist, had no team on the World Tour, and had no teammates in Tokyo. Kiesenhofer had switched to cycling from triathlon after an injury limited her running. She won her first elite road race in 2016, the same year she earned a Ph.D. in partial differential equations. Kiesenhofer had lost her place on the Lotto team because of a lack of top results. She was not expected to factor into the medals in the road race. But someone forgot to tell Keisenhofer.

Kiesenhofer took off from the beginning of the race. She and a small group of riders built a lead of 11 minutes at one point. Van Vleuten and her Dutch teammates struggled to catch the breakaway. The Dutch were conservative, particularly after van Vleuten fell at around 60km. With 50km to go, the lead had been cut to 5 minutes and van Vleuten, with teammate Marianne Vos, started to methodically catch the riders ahead of her.  At the 4.5km mark, van Vleuten passed what she thought were the last two riders of the breakaway pack.

When she crossed the line, van Vleuten celebrated as if the gold was hers.

Unlike at most professional road races, radios are banned in Olympic competition. Cyclists rely on communication from coaches to keep track of split times, safety information, changes in conditions, and the position of other racers. Radio earpieces provide direct communication. Without them, racers get information from team cars and motorcycles using chalkboards and communicating over the phone with sport directors watching footage. Thus, information may be delayed, misunderstood, or missed, as it was in this Olympic race.

Kiesenhofer had finished over a minute earlier. You don’t need to be a mathematician to count that.

Annemiek van Vleuten settled for silver. She was devastated, saying “this is worthless.” She did win gold in the individual time trial a few days later. She won by nearly a minute.

Van Vleuten continued to race and continued to get hurt. Since the Tokyo Olympics, she has suffered fractures in her wrist, scapula, and pelvis. Now 41 years old, van Vleuten’s Olympic career is over, officially retired in Fall 2023. She thought she might spend her retirement learning to ski, going to concerts, taking holidays, and spending time with her family; “I have more freedom,” van Vleuten told Cycling News.


–Alison Brown