Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the line at the Olympic road race celebrating as if she had won the title, but an excruciating moment of disappointment followed when she learned that the gold medal had, in fact, been claimed already. Hugging and celebrating with team staff, Van Vleuten’s rapt expression quickly transformed into a deadpan moment of realisation as she was told the news. As the rest of her team crossed the line they huddled together expressing their confusion, seemingly oblivious to the figure of Anna Kiesenhofer — the newly-crowned champion — a few feet away.
While Kiesenhofer’s rightfully-earned win should be the central story of the race, many are still scratching their heads over what actually happened to the team communication to cause Van Vleuten and others to believe that they had caught all of the riders in front and were racing for gold.
How did the race unfold?
Kiesenhofer initiated the winning move, clipping off the front of the 137km race from the gun, and was joined by Vera Looser (Namibia), Carla Oberholzer (South Africa), Omer Shapira (Israel) and Anna Plichta (Poland). In a turn of events rarely seen in women’s racing, the break proceeded to notch up a huge lead of upwards of twelve minutes. Eventual winner Kiesenhofer leads the initial breakaway (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
With just 67 riders in the peloton, the onus was on the bigger teams of the Netherlands, Australia, the United States, Germany, and Italy to chase down the breakaway. However, even teams with three or more riders represented were unwilling to tow the pre-race favourites of the Dutch to a victory. For their part, the Dutch were stubbornly refusing to organise a chase as the gap to the lead group stretched out. The most concerted effort came from the German squad but, with others putting in lacklustre turns, the impetus went out of the chase.
Such was the frustration among smaller nations that Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig — the only rider seen congratulating Kiesenhofer after the finish and one of two Danish riders in the race — is reported to have told Danish TV that she thought “It was a pretty bad representation of female cycling," adding: "I have no clue what the big teams are doing. It was completely nuts. I’m just sitting there alone and thinking what the hell the big teams are doing."
The gap to the break eventually began to come down and with 50km to go sat at around five minutes. A sustained solo attempt to bridge from Van Vleuten — who had crashed earlier in the race — proved fruitless and she was reeled back in with 25km remaining. With 40km to go the group was whittled down to just Shapira, Plichta, and Kiesenhofer — Oberholzer and Looser were already dropped — Kiesenhofer attacked her two companions and was never seen again.
Annemiek van Vleuten crosses the line believing she has won Gold (Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)
With just under 5km to go Plichta and Shapira were mopped up by the remainder of the bunch on the Speedway with Van Vleuten and some of her teammates believing they were “gruppo compatto” at that point. When the former World Champion attacked with 2.1km to go she was under the impression that she was headed for the win, unaware that Kiesenhofer had mopped up the title one minute and fifteen seconds ahead.
The huge gap afforded to the break by the peloton played into Kiesenhofer’s favour. Without radios, the other nations were forced to rely on memory to figure out whether they had caught all of the original break. Out of everyone’s sight, she was also unwittingly out of some of their minds, too and managed to use her significant time trial skills to propel herself to victory.
The primary cause for the confusion appears to have been the lack of race-radio, which riders have come to heavily rely on for communicating with teammates and directors. At the Olympic Games, teams were forced to use timing boards displayed by officials on motos as well as directors in team cars for information.
The Dutch squad in particular have decried the apparent unreliability of the timing boards, with national coach, Loes Gunnewijk (who was in the team car) telling Dutch news outlet AD: ”We received little information from the race in the car and in many places it was not possible to pass on anything to the riders. We don't have earphones and on that last lap around the track we couldn't get around with the car. Only then did I realise that it was not clear to the riders that there was still someone ahead."Image: Ben Stansall/Getty
After expressing his frustration with the apparently-unreliable timing information, however, Gunnewijk admitted: “We can now talk about this or that, but Kiesenhofer was just too strong.''
Since the race, various accounts have emerged of riders purporting to have known whether Kiesenhofer was caught or not. The case of Marianne Vos seems particularly confusing, with she herself claiming to have known both that Kiesenhofer was away and who the Austrian was “by name” dubbing it a “mistake” to have let her get away. Vos admitted in a post-race interview that the squad underestimated Kiesenhofer: “You try to make the calculations and it's a small team so it's not easy to make the right decisions and we didn't think Kiesenhofer would be so strong but she had a really strong ride."
Vos’s teammate and defending Olympic Champion Anna van der Breggen claimed not to have been quite so well-informed, saying in a post-race press conference: “We took the other women back and thought we were riding for the win.”
The outgoing champion acknowledged the need for extra vigilance without race radios saying: “It was a race without communication and the leading group took 10 minutes in the beginning. You should actually count how many are coming back and how many are still ahead. We can go to the car to get information, so we did.” However she added: “In the final you don’t do that anymore...if you look at what we knew, we calculated it correctly. We just didn’t have all the information. If we had all the information, we could have done more.”Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Lizzie Deignan of Great Britain was also under the impression that Van Vleuten had taken the Olympic title, commenting in a post-race interview “Honestly, the best person won the bike race – Annemiek was clearly the strongest, so chapeau to her,” before being told who had actually won.
However, bronze medallist Elisa Longo Borghini and fourth place Lotte Kopecky both commented that they were aware of Kiesenhofer’s presence out in front. "Basically when we caught the two ladies… I realised there was another one," said Longo Borghini after the race.
Alison Jackson of Canada was also aware of the situation: “There wasn’t too much confusion really, at least on my side. Basically, that early break was dangerous,” said Jackson. She was also aware of Kiesenhofer’s strength: “I’ve been Anna’s teammate one time before in the [Tour Cycliste Feminin International de l’]Ardeche and she won the Mont Ventoux stage. She’s really strong but just doesn’t race much...Basically the confusion was with those top five teams who have teams of four...everyone was looking to the Dutch and the Dutch didn’t have a hierarchy of who was going to be the leader and who was going to work.”Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Annemiek van Vleuten has since posted an update to her official website which cleared up some of the conflicting accounts: “The miscommunication, where I thought we were going for gold, arose because we had been told that Anna Plichta was only ahead,” she explained. “So when we counted that in, I thought we were going for gold.”
Van Vleuten’s post also clarifies the two different accounts of Vos’s knowledge: “Marianne saw with three kilometers to go that Kiesenhofer was only ahead, but by then I was already gone and I didn't get that. That made me think I was an Olympic champion.”
The former World Champion, who missed out on gold in Rio after a crash added: “It's my first Olympic medal. I'm proud of how I rode and at least I can't blame myself. The legs are good and with those good legs I will ride the time trial on Wednesday.”