Highlights of 2021 – Part IV

Embed from Getty Images

The fourth pick of the season. This time it’s the Olympics and Anna Kiesenhofer’s stunning win in the road race.

Which Dutch rider was going to win? The course was hilly but not Alpine and it looked like the already small field – just 67 starters – would be softened up and reduced by the time it reached the Fuji Speedway. Then we’d see whether a Dutch rider could get away solo for the win, and if not they’d force others to chase and so another, perhaps Marianne Vos, would win the resulting sprint. Only the Dutch team was all stars and no water carriers. Anna Kiesenhofer and others attacked from the gun and behind nobody really wanted to chase. The Germans tried a bit while the Dutch riders were spotted as often in conversation with their team car as at the front of the bunch as they climbed up the gradual Dōshi valley. Kiesenhofer, with Anna Plichta (Poland) and Omer Shapira (Israel) had almost 10 minutes before the tunnel at the top of the pass.

Towards the top of the climb the attacks began thanks to the Dutch and eventually Annemiek van Vleuten got away solo. This looked like order being restored and the early breakaway would be reeled in. Only the time gap wasn’t falling and van Vleuten wasn’t riding away from what was left of the peloton either.

Kiesenhofer attacked on the Kagosaka Pass and this was the decisive moment, she left two World Tour pros behind to go solo. And while she was tiring and her back becoming ever-more hunched from fatigue, the suspense grew as to whether she could stay clear or if she’d crack like Plichta and Shapira did. Only she didn’t and took the shock win the season. In the moment she didn’t seem to believe it, collapsed on the tarmac.

Why the highlight?
A thriller and a surprise. If this was a film the genre might depend on your nationality: a fairy tale for Austrians and many neutrals; a disaster movie for Dutch viewers. It was a race to enjoy from the start. Now there weren’t attacks every minute but it was thrilling for the way the story gradually changed, the build from “they need to start chasing” to “is it too late?” to “can she make it?”. When Kiesenhofer had won it still was exciting to see the race for silver and the reactions. Above all it feels like a race to pick over and review when others seem settled and done.

Some readers might prefer the men’s race. It was a great event too, but a more predictable “Hollywood” script with the best riders waiting for the steepest point of the course before trading moves.

Kiesenhofer’s win was also popular Olympics story. To view host broadcaster NHK’s home page during the games was to visit the goldmine of Japanese success stories… but amid all the home glory was Kiesenhofer too, a popular story alongside the shared men’s high jump medal, it’s always nice to see others enjoy our sport too.

With hindsight
Within hours of the race finishing we got the benefit of some hindsight as we discovered some riders didn’t know Kiesenhofer was still up the road, while others knew full well. Just knowing this allows us to review the tactical choices in a new light. It’s also notable because while Tokyo was a striking example it happens more often in a race than we might think, and serves as a reminder that you get a more comprehensive view of the race from your sofa than racers get inside the race.

A longshot made good or a likely outcome? I still can’t decide and part of the enjoyment of this race is still chewing it over in a way that other races are settled. If you could run the race 100 times Kiesenhofer could win plenty of times, a host of factors helped her rather than a lottery-win lucky strike. Now sometimes the early breakaway does make it in a race and lesser-known rider gets a win. But the Olympics road race was very different, yes it’s one of the biggest races on the calendar, especially for the women’s peloton, the kind where mistakes aren’t supposed to happen. Only structurally it’s also the very race to reward a breakaway: 67 starters, small teams, a quota system that qualifies weaker riders. The system set up the scenario, Kiesenhofer then grabbed it with an audacious solo ride.

Embed from Getty Images

Highlights of 2021 – Part I
Highlights of 2021 – Part II
Highlights of 2021 – Part III

35 thoughts on “Highlights of 2021 – Part IV”

  1. Great write up, as always, and definitely one of the season highlights for me. As you note, it was all the more exciting for the way it showed off the excitement of bike racing to non-fans, plenty of whom were watching. I watched a lot of the Olympics with family and they usually have little interest in cycling, but they found Kiesenhofer’s upset win great viewing. That’s what shocked me about many comments after the race, the ones that stated it was terrible for women’s cycling that a “nobody” won, but in fact it was the kind of bike race that didn’t require deep knowledge about domestiques and team strategies and watts-per-kilo to appreciate. An underdog risked looking like a fool to ride away from the favorites, and through a staggering and easily-appreciated show of athleticism and determination made it work.

    Minor correction in the last paragraph – you left out the word “win” (or some synonym) in “If you could run the race 100 times Kiesenhofer could plenty of times…”

    • Likewise, if people wanted to watch the Tour de France stars duke it out for the medals there was the mens’ race after all, which was also a good race. This was different but all the more interesting because of it. I don’t chase audience/readership stats as I’m not selling advertising (so no lists of 10 best gloves, discs vs rim brakes or Lance Armstrong articles, sorry) but if I checked I’d imagine the write-up of the women’s race here got as many hits and shares as any Tour de France stage preview, it drew a lot of interest from new or non-readers who just wanted to read about this peculiar event.

    • I was perhaps fortunate enough to jump over the comments where the gist was a bitter disappointment over the fact that a nobody had won? As I remember it, what was experienced and deemed as terrible for women’s cycling that the race was so to speak not raced at all, i.e. not the way most races in women’s cycling are raced and the way which makes women’s cycling sometimes more interesting and exciting than men’s cycling.

      In any other race there would’ve been action and attacks long before the one half-assed (if one may say so) move by van Vleuten. There was no team work in sight. There seemed to be no tactical thought involved apart from a refusal to work for others by the Dutch and a refusal to do anything apart from waiting that the Dutch do something first. It was racing not lose to the point of exasperation for the viewers and deep frustration for many of the riders. It was only the increasing likelihood that “the nobody” would win that made it watchable.

      PS I remember thinking that van Vleuten’s move was not designed to catch the breakaway but to make the other than Dutch teams work for the Dutch – which, of course, never happened.

  2. A great choice as even people who hated the result/unravelling of the race were talking about it for days. I think a minor extra point that also ‘came out’ after the event is the DIY, detailed preparation that Kiesenhofer had undertaken, pretty much by herself, before the race (for the route, for the heat and humidity). Some have seen this as belittling or patronising for women’s cycling, but there is a certain charm in the tale and it’s a human story within the gigantic Olympic machine, which makes it a rare gem.

    • Good on her for doing her homework, the heat/humidity was something to be wary of but both events were spared the full extent of racing in the Japanese summer. Going clear meant easier access to water as she had a team car to help although when she went back for a drink, perhaps out of inexperience, she really went back a long way rather than waiting for the car to come up to her.

  3. A great highlight. Not just for the cycling year but also for the Olympics which has largely lost most of its gloss to me over the last 30 years. It was not really an exiting finish because the result seemed obvious from a long way out but it was a great tale for what is perhaps the biggest race of the calendar for the ladies until a longer TDF starts to gain traction.

    I got to tune into this race with 40 odd km’s to go. I couldn’t work out what the dutch team was doing. No one seemed to be the dedicated helper. It seemed they had the mindset of not being taken advantage of by the rest of the peleton and just could not switch the tactics well past the point that they needed to.

    • Agreed with Inrng – find a replay of it and set it from the beginning. It was an awesome race purely to watch the top-dogs out fox each other to death. Meanwhile Kiessenhofer was putting on a great ride for a career victory!

      The Dutch knew they were the favourites and none of them would consider riding for each other, so obviously they failed miserably.

      • Just done that!
        The early winter is at its usual worst: it snows a bit, the snow melts and then freezes, then it rains; a film of water on ice means the road conditions are as treacherous slippery as they get and studded tires are far from a sufficient solution. I find that Zwift and many others are nice for a short session, but if I’m going to ride on a trainer for longer than two hours, nothing beats re-watching a race.
        PS I have half a dozen Giro stages and Alaphilippe’s rainbow victory to help me through the winter 🙂

  4. I’m glad you included this race in the highlights of the year. Sorta forgot about it, but it truly was the most amazing coup. The fact that the Dutch were such heavy favorites made it that much more compelling; David and Goliath meets women’s cycling. I bet I’m not the only male who checked out Anna’s relationship status. As if…
    And as always, the lack of radios comes up when this race is analyzed. And it makes a pretty good argument for leaving them in the pits. On the other hand, it points out to how much race information is key to how the riders actually ride. I know when I raced USCF way way back in the day, it was often hard to know WTH was actually going on without any kind of race communications.
    Anyway, kudos to Anna K for her amazing day. It was a treasure and well-deserved.

  5. As much as I enjoy seeing the privateer get up and beat the overwhelming favourites the highlight of the Olympics for me was Roglic’s win in the race of truth.
    He suffered atrocious bad luck in in TdF but picked himself up off the canvas and delivered in spades in the race of truth.

  6. This belongs somewhere I guess…for me it would be a lowlights list for reasons I went on probably far too much about back when it happened so I’ll leave it there except to wonder if the gold medal winner will ever be seen as a protagonist in any other high-level roadrace? IMHO the Olympic gods didn’t so much smile at her as they frowned at the others for their awful, “race-not-to-win but not-to-lose” tactics.

    • Wow. Sometimes the dissenting voice is useful, but on other occasions it shows more about the writer than the subject.

      I doubt this would be written about a breakaway victory in a grand tour, or a lone attack in a classic. There are too many examples of those, but they are never written or remembered as lowlights. The underdog taking the spoils is a common trope and is usually looked at as a triumph against adversity. To you does not matter that Anna has a very rich life outside cycling that makes this win intriguing. To you it does not matter that this race was her sole focus, planned and trained for it so well that she executed the best plan on the day. It does not matter that she may never feature in another race. In fact many pros never even win one race, but if they do that should be a lowlight?

      It appears that as other favourites did no win, or race in a certain, predictable way makes the race a lowlight for you is fine. A race that comes round once every 4 years(ish) makes every winner is laudable if not a highlight.

      For a longer view that medal will be a highlight and a beacon, not only for her country, other athletes, but certainly for her family for generations. I never achieved my cycling dreams, but I have a cycling Olympic gold medal from a family member and that is a constant motivator for so many things. It shows what can be achieved, if you plan, prepare and have fortune on your side. So thanks for the post, but maybe take a minute to respect the original opinion expressed and if it is not for you just move on. We will never change your mind, but perhaps, with a bit of reflection, you might be able to see what others do.

      I know this will come over as pompous and preachy, but your comment is so one eyed and negative that it is no wonder you got flamed last time. I am not trying to do the same, but asking you why your final question even matters, because Anna has already achieved what some can only dream of?

    • “I’ll leave it there except to wonder if the gold medal winner will ever be seen as a protagonist in any other high-level roadrace?”
      Why not, Larry, given that she already did in the past?
      A problem which women cycling is struggling with is that most people aren’t offered the sort of deep background we normally enjoy in the case of male athletes, nor is the general public already endowed with it by a habit of regularly following that side of the sport.
      Hence people are left with the simplistic version granted on the fly by media.
      Otherwise, people – and, let me add, athletes on the road that day plus DS on the team cars – would have been aware that Kisenhofer wasn’t your usual wanna-be-pro amateur whose skills aren’t simply as good as the rest of the top field. It was more of a story of inadequate setting for lack of profesionalism – in a sense – by the system around her (not unusual, either, indeed).
      Add to the above that in women cycling it’s not that easy to recognise an “high-level roadrace” just scrolling through procyclingstats, because of the turmoil which for good and ill the world of women cycling is going through, with race classification often affected by a range of different factors (for example, the Giro Donne being scaled down because of the lack of the equired TV coverage, the demotion of Gracia-Orlova back in the 2000s, the woes of the Thüringen Runfahrt, the Emakumeen Bira nota making the WWT etc.).
      To me (and to the *guys* at Lotto Soudal… unluckily for her, in a sense), what Kisenehofer showed on Ardèche roads back in 2016 was and is more than enough to back up her physical and technical potential, as it was her experience as an unexpected competitor on Spanish roads. Once she was freed again from the burden which working within some unfitting frames had represented for her, she was back for more in Ardèche in 2019, too. No doubt she was a protagonist among high-profile pros in a high-profile roadrace.
      She’s also several got top-10s or nearly so in a number of top ITT race with some of the very best in the mix – after the Olympics too, so how’s that not being a protagonist, although I’d admit ITTs aren’t exactly a roadrace. But that would be starting to be quite picky, wouldn’t it? Many would be more than happy to keep their difference to Marlen Reusser or Ellen van Dijk under the 2 mins mark, I’d bet… probably some in the male pro peloton, too 😉

  7. “I’d admit ITTs aren’t exactly a roadrace.” Exactly. I won’t go into it any further since it would just be repeating the arguments I made at the time.
    Except for “I am not trying to do the same, but asking you why your final question even matters, because Anna has already achieved what some can only dream of?”
    I think it matters in the same way as with the medal won by the short-track speedskater guy whose competitors all fell down while in front of him..but at least in his case those competitors were RACING rather than engaging in a farcical “After, you. No, after you!” parade.

  8. Lazza mate, you’re wrong on this one. Stop digging yourself into an even deeper hole. Hell, even the Aussie lad who won the speed skating was laughing when he crossed the line. Anna Kiesenhofer won fair and square. She spotted a tactical weakness in the overloaded Dutch team and exploited it, having specifically prepared for the conditions. Chapeau!

    • I never claimed the winner didn’t win “fair and square”, just that the race itself was a farce, same as that speedskating race where they all fell down.
      I used to race motorcycles at a fairly high level, finishing as high as 10th against the best in the country a time or two. Would I consider myself a big winner if the 9 racers in front of me all crashed or their engines blew up and I crossed the finish line first? Certainly would have been “fair and square” but it’s unlikely I would have ever duplicated that result. Only time will tell if the Olympic gold medalist wins any big roadraces in the future. I’ll bet she’ll be more Sarah Carrigan than Marianne Vos but that’s just my humble opinion, OK? Let’s move on!

      • But that didn’t happen, Larry. No one fell off in front of her thus gifting her the race, because there was virtually no one in front of her The Whole Time. She out thought them , out planned them and out rode them. Good for her.

        And what’s with all this follow up stuff? Are you suggesting that people should somehow be judged on subsequent performance? Not much joy for the fading athlete there.

        Still, never mind. If the IOC have their way, women’s races will be a thing of the past.

        • By Larry’s logic Paris-Roubaix was a farce in 2016 when Matt Hayman won, as was the Tour of Flanders in 2019 with Bettiol’s victory, among many other celebrated surprise wins.

          • Show me where the peloton pretty much all day demonstrated an “After you. No, after you!” way of racing in 2016’s Paris-Roubaix and I might take you seriously. But unless my memory is gone I don’t remember watching that race on TV and asking “WTF, are they just going to f__k around and let Hayman go with that much of the race still left?”
            Same with Bettiol in 2019, he didn’t ride away from a peloton squabbling endlessly early in the race over who would chase. In case you have forgotten: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRyoZoRaI4k
            A more accurate example might be the Women’s Paris-Roubaix from this year where they let the eventually winner just ride away. They sat around and let her ride away as I recall with a chase coming only when it was too late, Great tactics by her team but IMHO it wasn’t a great debut sporting-wise for the women’s Hell of the North.

          • Matt Hayman was given a hefty headstart though by going in the early break. I, for one, can’t believe that the peloton just let that early break ride away – it was all “after you, no after you” from all the big World Tour teams. Where was the real racing? What a farce! If they’d raced it properly from the gun instead of gifting Hayman a massive lead then we’d have a worthy winner instead of some tall Aussie who’s never even won a time trial !!!1

          • FWIW, on top of Davesta’s entertaining take here, Hayman was also allowed the sort of free ride on the back of the head group which Larry would no doubt call “a farce”, given that such a behaviour in Classics normally implies that the rest takes attacking turns or deliberately lets gaps open expressly in order to leave you behind.

            Plus, let’s not forget that at the Olympics the rest of the break was actually brought back by that supposedly-not-chasing peloton. The peloton did indeed chase in a way – 75 seconds short over four hours (!) , hence too little, too late – so, the second best placed women from the break came home some three minutes behind Kiesenhofer, more than a minute behind Van Vleuten. It’s more about conflicting tactics and resources both within and around the Dutch team – but strategy is one of the most relevant factors in cyling.
            If a break wins any sort of attempted chase notwithstanding, some mistake has normally been made by the peloton. But we applaud Taco rather than chastising the peloton, we applaud De Gendt on the Stelvio rather than blaming the rest, we praise Gilbert’s Flanders, and Nibali’s last stage win at the Tour, although behind there were, well, troubles of sort.

            What is more, it’s quite laughable to dismiss top-level ITTs only because of the arbitrary decision to only take into account “road races”. Why shouldn’t we add some more von-trieresque limitation like, dunno, that we demand that she must prove herself a real thing by being a protagonist on rainy/snowy days (if they don’t get cancelled) or near the sea, or whatever? The funniest thing of it all is that even once you so capriciously dismiss the top-level pro ITTs Kiesenhofer performed greatly in, you’re still left with more than notable “road race” results like those in the Spain Cup series or in two separate editions of Ardèche – nada, rien, they’re just made disappear.
            On top of that, first Larry says that he’s wondering if Kisenhofer will again be “a protagonist”, then the bar is raised to “Only time will tell if the Olympic gold medalist wins any big roadraces in the future”. Come on…

            I already cited elsewhere Eros Poli’s highly celebrated Ventoux win, and more could be added, but now I’d like to stress a different point.

            When men elite cyclists find themselves not comfortable in a given structure, as it’s been happening to many at DSM/Sunweb for example, the focus is on what *that team* might not be doing so well, whereas we don’t question the athletes’ qualities, even if they’be gone through several moot years after early juvenile promises (think Benoot).
            When men cyclists even take a break from their commitment with professionalism, in a way or the other, they’re lauded for taking care of themselves, and everybody agrees – and rightly so – that personal well-being needs to be top priority. Doubts are cast – rightly so, again – on the cycling pro environment. Everybody is so happy to see, say, Dumoulin or Aru coming back happier and being able to win… or just “to be a protagonist”. Or just staying more or less OK. Same for – dunno, first stories I recall – the likes of Robert Power, Lachlan Morton, Laurens De Plus, Janez Brajkovic, Moreno Moser…
            It’s just crazy that in the case of *a woman* – which in itself means facing an exponentially more difficult context from any POV – her actual talent is questioned because she doesn’t fit in the current WWT team setting, despite her results against top competitors (in “road races”, too, yeah) both before *and* after her pro experience, while in her story I can see a very similar pattern to those above mentioned, although with the proportional differences which depend on the whole different situation of men vs. women cycling.

          • @gabriele I just want to say I always enjoy reading your deeply knowledgeable insights. It’s like a wonderful blog within a wonderful blog, but with a little more spice than the ever-sober Inring (and that’s a compliment to both of you).

      • “just that the race itself was a farce, ”

        Oh, yeah, unthinkable how much better Women’s cycling would have looked if the whole podium were just 3 ladies in orange, like every pundit expected. *yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn*
        Tragedy that we had to watch a thrilling race in which those expected ladies finished way behind Anna’s middlefinger.

  9. Hopefully, last point on *Larry’s folly* above (sorry Larry, it was just too easy a call 😛 ).

    The examples of people crashing or falling or blowing engines just don’t stand (!) at all, because the last standing competitor in those cases would win *irrespective of his or her actual level*, once he or her simply qualified.

    It would make no difference at all if his or her performance was, say, a whole 10% better or worse than what was actually produced on the occasion… sometimes a worse performance might even be better to find oneself further back and avoid troubles!

    On the contrary, had Kiesenhofer performed *even slightly* worse than she actually did, she would have been altogether denied – just as the two best break fellows who were up there with her, two well-established pros on top teams, by the way, both with significant top-10s in GC through several top races of the women calendar (Valencia, Toscana, Belgium, Gracia Orlova, Krasna Lipa, Thüringen Rundfahrt etc.).

    But I guess Larry is on a mission here to keep inrng’s blog lively off-season, too, so he throws all the beef in and goes full gas 😉

  10. The only further comment from me on this is BS to the women’s angle. I really detest the idea that criticism of women’s sport so often ends up being branded misogynistic. It’s the same with criticism of the Israeli government – instantly the anti semitic label is hurled by the lions of the keyboard.
    The negative comments from competitors in that farce…er..race seem to be conveniently ignored here. Is this from the fear of being branded a misogynist?
    PS- Mr. Inrng posted this knowing full-well the arguments that followed the actual event, so don’t claim it was me who “throws all the beef in and goes full gas” OK?

    • But aren’t the comments of the participants skewed at least partly by perspective? Of course many of them felt it was a farce, because they were embarrassed by their mistakes, or aggrieved that they’d not been given (or perhaps not understood) the time gaps, and quite rightly felt that they hadn’t presented the best version of themselves, their sport, and their cycling ability to the viewing public…but to the public masses (as opposed to niche cycling fans who understand tactical nuance) it was surely widely viewed as a wonderful sporting underdog story? The embodiment of the Olympic spirit? The cycling equivalent to a non-league club beating a premiership giant in the FA cup?

      • “But aren’t the comments of the participants skewed at least partly by perspective?” Isn’t everything? “But they were embarrassed by their mistakes,” admits the race was a farce, does it not? I was out riding today and trying to think of a men’s race where the “After you. No, after you!” situation developed early in the race and let an opportunist escape and hang on for the win. I couldn’t think of one, but surely it’s happened and someone out there will come up with an example. Gabriele?
        Stage races for me don’t much count vs one day events since Eros Poli can win the Ventoux stage (I was there) while nobody much cared since his GC position was so far back he was no threat to the big stars. One might cite Chiappucci’s famous Sestriere exploits (again, I was there) but as I recall he attacked out of a small group that had already broken away but a furious chase ensued, led by Bugno (which annoyed me at the time) helping BigMig, who almost caught El Diablo, so it wasn’t nearly the kind of farce IMHO the Tokyo women’s Olympic roadrace was.

  11. Why have so few people brought up the important planning considerations? The Olympic Road race had a tiny peloton (67), a large portion of which were solo qualifying riders from smaller nations, who were just there to make up the numbers. So, in reality less than 40 pro-level women. As the Dutch were so dominant, the expectation would be that the remaining possible winners would be leaning on the Dutch to chase, who would inevitably want to play poker, whilst also not really wanting to work for each other. So the conditions were right for a long break to succeed. Anna K saw this and went the extra mile to prepare for the heat and humidity by going out earlier than the others (made easier by her decision to not tie herself to a trade team). Finally, she had the bravery to trust her own TT talent and to take the gamble. In many ways it was the most intricately planned and most inspiring win of the year.

Comments are closed.