Anna Kiesenhofer attacks Anna Plichta and Omer Shapira over the Kagosaka pass. With a lead of five minutes on Annemiek van Vleuten and six minutes on the rest with just over 40km to go, the Austrian is going solo. This was the moment the Olympic road race was won.
The Koremasa bridge spans the river Tama, linking the bed towns of Fuchū and Inagi and it is no place special, as the recon ride photo suggests. Still, it was promised a footnote in sporting history as the start point of the 2020 Olympic road races, the kilomètre zero. Now it merits a plaque saying “Anna Kiesenhofer attacked here on Sunday 25 June” because the Austrian amateur jumped the instant the flag dropped, the start of a race-winning plot.
For every winner there has to be a looser and more on them in a minute, but Kiesenhofer was joined by Namibia’s Vera Looser who still had the merit of joining the action from the start and South Africa’s Carla Oberholzer. Moments later reinforcements came across in the form of World Tour level pros Anna Plichta (Poland) and Omer Shapira (Israel).
Behind, nothing. Like the men’s race the peloton was content to sit up. Instead, like Kremlinologists, we could wonder about the balance of power within the mighty Dutch team. Was Marianne Vos the designated helper today? Yes, perhaps as moments earlier she was gathering the special ice vests worn by the Dutch team to take them back to the car and fetch new bottles.
We got big crowds again although because of Covid people had been advised to stay away. Perhaps plenty did? In normal times it could have been ten deep in the Tama hills and a chorus of “ganbatte“, the Japanese for allez, hup or forza.
Trixi Worrack didn’t need encouragement and the German veteran launched an attack. When she was reeled in, compatriot Hannah Ludwig had a go. But nothing stuck and moments later Worrack drifted back to the team cars and the race fell back to its previous phase. No nation wanted to chase, races often have moments like this until one team blinks first and decides to chase.
- Now for a structural interlude. Having bemoaned in the preview that too much of the coverage of women’s racing is about structural issues rather than sport, we must note just 67 riders started. That’d be decent for the Japanese nationals but tiny for a major international competition. Only the Olympics has quotas, they don’t want to accommodate hundreds of cyclists just for a one day event. Traditionally this meant the men got more places and this year of approximate 200 athlete quota for road cycling, 65% went to the men and 35% for the women. This will be fixed in Paris 2024 at 50-50… but that means fields of 90 each and a concern for another day.
Now back to Tokyo. The field of 67 meant only four nations had “big teams”… of four riders. So the biggest teams could hardly spare a rider. Then layer on tactics because why should, say, Germany or Italy start working if it meant the Dutch would win anyway? Better to pressure the Dutch into chasing and revealing which of their four were protected and who would be sacrificed.
Kremlinology wasn’t easy. Because all the Dutch riders seemed to be shuttling back and forth to their team car. As riders to watch maybe they stood out more but they seemed to be at the back. A lot. Meanwhile the gap had grown to ten minutes as they reached the Dōshi road with 95km to go and Looser had been dropped, a clue the breakaway wasn’t hanging around. Next to go was Oberholzer, fried on flat section.
With 87km to go it looked like the little-known Kiesenhofer was next. Only no, she’d gone back to the team car for a bottle. Perhaps it was inexperience but she’d dropped so far back she was now a hundred metres behind the other two escapees, but there was no sticky bottle either. She just rode back.
At one point both Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos were back at their team car for another chat. What new information had they got, what was the team plan? The breakaway had almost 10 minutes with 67km to go and something had to be done. Then Emma Norsgaard crashed and van Vleuten rode into her to fall hard. She was ok and riding again but no crash is consequence-free.
Demi Vollering launched the first move from the Dutch team but the USA squad quickly got her back. Soon after Anna van der Breggen launched. For a moment the peloton was in pieces and while riders regrouped, plenty of riders had been ejected and were done for the day, including outsiders like Norsgaard and Bastianelli.
Next van Vleuten attacked on the steeper slopes of the Yamabushi pass to go solo. Just as winners get to write history this looked the moment the story switched from “doh, they’ve given the breakaway too much time” to “the Dutchies are stomping all over the race” and we were all ready for another vintage van Vleuten raid. At the top of the pass she was now less than six minutes away from the lead trio and almost a minute clear of the peloton and at one point chatting with the TV camera crew – flown in from the Netherlands – in order to get a time check and “vijf minuten” came the reply. She’d been taking chunks of time but shook her head at the news.
Soon she stalled. Lapping Lake Yamanaka the time gaps seemed frozen. Being so used to van Vleuten ravaging races was the GPS timing was playing up? Only the gaps were right, the breakaway was still working hard and the peloton had begun to chase. Van Vleuten was stuck.
KO on the Kagosaka Pass
At this point Kiesenhofer attacked, and this is the crucial part, first she dropped Plichta who was in the World Tour with Trek-Segafredo last year and now at Lotto-Soudal. Then World Tour pro Omer Shapira, normally of Canyon-SRAM, was distanced distanced. It was a knock-out blow by Kiesenhofer.
For van Vleuten and the rest it wasn’t yet obvious. Chapatte’s Law says the bunch can take back one minute for every 10 kilometres remaining and over Kagosakatōge with 41km to go Kiesenhof had five minutes. Chapatte said oui but the equation was more complicated, a partial equation with variables like the nature of the course and the distance of the race and unknowns such as the fatigue of the leader and the state of the chasers behind. And while Kiesenhofer’s job title is “Chair of Partial Differential Equations” in the science department of Switzerland’s prestigious EPFL university let’s not kid ourselves things were that complicated: Kiesenhofer had only a small lead on the pair she’d dropped and a good advantage on van Vleuten and the bunch. Nothing was complicated, she was committed to going solo for gold in an all or nothing move, a throw of the dice more than a solution.
Van Vleuten wasn’t closing in. Did she know it? Yes because on Kagosaka there were two soigneurs in orange shirts shouting time checks at her. “Vijf minuten” again said one, pointing behind to say “zes minuten“, as in van Vleuten was five minutes down and the bunch was just a minute behind. The long lap around Yamanaka in pursuit mode hadn’t helped close the gap, nor had her efforts up the Kagosaka pass. But in shouting the time gaps the soigneurs didn’t say how many riders were ahead.
Coming into the Fuji circuit with 20km to go Kiesenhofer had over four minutes and Chapatte was saying “oui” in emphatic tones. Only a Bettiol-style cramp could spoil things and this wasn’t out of the question as the Austrian was now visibly tired, the legs were turning nicely but her upper body twisted, arms bent, neck hunched.
Coincidentally the Fuji speedway circuit involved a section with a small tunnel, with the race riding under another part of the course. It was just when Kiesenhofer was on the upper section that the peloton was in the tunnel and this helped keep Kiesenhofer out of sight. They couldn’t have responded if they’d seen her, but they might have known they were racing for silver.
Yet there were chances for information from here. There were Dutch staff in the pit zone with 20km for the peloton to go but presumably they didn’t know what van Vleuten knew. Also, and the video is fuzzy here, there looked to be someone in orange holding up an A3 sized board. A fan? This was a reserved zone. Race info? Maybe but this doesn’t mean it was readable if it was or that it was certain to be spotted.
With 10km to go Shapira and Plichta were hanging on for the medals and Kiesenhofer still had four minutes while France’s Juliette Labous had set off en chasse patate. Back into the Fuji Speedway with 6km to go Kiesenhofer was still over three minutes ahead. Labous was soon caught, so were Shapira and Plichta and the race for the other medals was on and the attacks flew. Eventually van Vleuten was away solo and Elisa Longo Borghini behind held on for bronze.
A thriller, but if this was a film the genre might depend on your nationality: a fairy tale for Austrians and many neutrals; a disaster movie for those down in the Netherlands. At one point in the final hour hour you wondered if Dutch broadcaster NOS might have decided to cut to some pistol shooting or the canoe slalom to spare depressing the audience any more. Yet it was otherwise enjoyable and the lack of suspense at the end was replaced with surprise, the wow factor of seeing this happening in front of us.
Of course the contributing factor to all of this was confusion in the Dutch camp exemplified by van Vleuten sitting up to celebrate as she crossed the line. Yes it was her first Olympic medal… but her celebrations suggested she thought she had won, and she soon said so on TV. Apply some hindsight and this begins to explain more of the tactics… but not everything. First a lack of information can happen. Yes there were motos with boards to supply regular time checks to the riders and speaking to L’Equipe French men’s selector Thomas Voeckler, said the information over race radio was limpide which best translates as “crystal clear”. Still while many in the peloton knew who was away, some did not. It happens, in fact it happened during a stage of the last Tour de France where some riders didn’t know someone else was still out in front, but I’d forgotten which stage it was because it wasn’t important. We shouldn’t confuse the images at home from two helicopters and several motorbikes with what riders can see around them.
Van Vleuten knew she was five minutes down with 40km to go, or at least that’s what her soigneurs shouted loud enough for the TV moto micro to pick it up. With a long descent making chasing hard perhaps she gave up… only to see Plichta and Shapira reeled in and, forgetting there was another rider away, suddenly thought an Olympic miracle had occurred and here was a path to gold. Crucially that was both wrong and too late. All the teams gave the breakaway too much room on the roads of Sagamihara and Dōshi and as L’Equipe’s Giles Simon wrote (€) in French, “this wasn’t a miss, it was a tactical shipwreck, a strategic Trafalgar”. Besides, once given the space Kiesenhofer was simply too strong, she didn’t lose much ground against the world’s best in the final half of the race. Then, having seen off the rest of the breakaway, she was strong enough to hit out solo with 40km to go, sacking two World Tour level pros.
After the satisfaction of seeing the best riders from the Tour de France duke it out for the medals in a script a Hollywood executive would approve, the women’s race went for a fantasy story from Yowamushi Pedal, an otaku win, and in a manner that could only really work in a fantasy manga. Yes sport can have upsets but it would be a surprise if Kiesenhofer held out to win the Flèche Wallonne from the early break, a stunning shock if she’d somehow won the Strade Bianche. But the Olympics?
Well actually yes, because with a small field made up of small teams it was always going to be hard to chase: the breakaway had a better chance. Street smarts told us this more than any masters in maths. We can lament the petite peloton but on the morning of the race this was an angle to be exploited and all the more reason for riders to have gone in the early move, for teams to place someone. They didn’t and Austria gets its first gold in the summer Olympics since 2004. Plus an amateur won. We should be careful not to exaggerate, Kiesenhofer is no novice and had ridden for Lotto-Soudal in the past, a national champion. And with that caveat we can note amateur is derived from the Latin to love, it conveys someone doing something out sheer pleasure. The thirty-year old coaches herself, and her bike didn’t come from a service course but a bike shop, complete with Shimano shifters and a SRAM chainset, just like any other amateur out for a Sunday ride.