Anna Kiesenhofer: the mathematician who beat the odds

Anna Kiesenhofer’s gold medal ride in the Olympic road race is a pure underdog story, and one that benefits the image of women's cycling.

Anna Kiesenhofer's story is truly one of — figurative — rags to riches. The 30-year-old Austrian, who has a mathematics PhD and teaches at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), may now be an Olympic gold medallist, but it’s been a winding road to success. 

As a measure of how far she has come: in 2012, while studying for her master's degree in mathematics at Emmanuel College Cambridge, Kieserhofer came dead last at the British University and Colleges Sport (BUCS) 10-mile TT. 

Fast-forward to the 2016 season and Kiesenhofer was winning Spanish National Cup overall riding for an amateur Girona-based team. Later, she took a stage win on Mont Ventoux at the Tour de Feminin International de l’Ardeche — all whilst studying for her PhD. The then-26-year-old signed a contract with Lotto Soudal Ladies for the following season but quit the sport soon after.

She returned to competition as an amateur in 2019 and has since almost exclusively raced time trials, never signing another UCI contract. In fact, the three-time Austrian champion avoids bunch races where possible, so much so that she wanted out of the peloton from the gun in Tokyo: “I planned to attack at kilometre zero and I was happy I could get in front. That is something I could not take for granted because I am not good at riding in the peloton," she said after the race.

For the same reason, she has no intention of taking up a WorldTour contract off the back of her gold medal any time soon, saying: “I'm not aiming for a professional career on the road, but I would like to continue to commit to the time trial." 

Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

The 30-year-old ‘amateur’ rider’s win was the result of a gutsy move that paid off, and has captured the original essence of the Olympics — in which, for most of the 20th Century, only amateur athletes were able to compete. Kiesenhofer spent the entire 137km race off the front with four others, before attacking her breakaway companions with 40km to go and bamboozling the pre-race favourites. In doing so, she had enthralled everyone watching her before she even crossed the line. As she wrestled with her body all the way to the finish, gurning and grimacing, it was impossible not to will her on.

To call Kiesenhofer ‘amateur’ is technically true but not as exceptional as it might sound — given that to be professional in women’s cycling is a nebulous concept. As The Cyclists’ Alliance’s recent survey revealed, many Continental riders receive no salary whatsoever which by most definitions would render them amateur given that cycling doesn’t pay the bills. Kiesenhofer herself admitted that "on paper, I’m an amateur, but cycling takes up a lot of space in my life.”

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Regardless of the definition of her status, Kiesenhofer’s circumstances are extraordinary enough to have made an impression with or without the gold medal. The story of her entry into the sport is relatively commonplace, with running injuries having prevented her from continuing to compete in duathlon and triathlon and her focus then turning exclusively to cycling. Even the fact that she has a PhD in mathematics, although hugely impressive, isn’t out of the ordinary for a female cyclist — many of whom are highly educated. What really sets Kiesenhofer apart, however, is her attitude. 

Fiercely self-reliant and anti-authoritarian Kiesenhofer appears to reject the norms of professional cycling — including deferring to the Dutch — and mostly has herself to thank for her win, even down to the fact that she was Austria’s sole representative in the race. 

“I did have coaches in the past and I learned a lot from them, but right now I’m managing everything on my own, also like nutrition and equipment - I make all the choices myself. I made my race plan myself: how many gels, what kind of gels, what kind of carbs, how much water,” Kiesenhofer said. “So I’m actually also proud about that because I’m not the kind of cyclist who is only pushing the pedals but I’m also kind of the mastermind behind my performance.” 

She had been meticulous in her preparations for the race and Tweeted about her experimentation with ‘isothermic heat acclimation protocols’ ahead of the Tokyo Games, citing scientific data and studies. Although she was taking the race seriously, Kiesenhofer was realistic in her goals beforehand: “Actually in my mind a good result might have been like coming in 25th,” she said. “I was just sacrificing everything for coming 25th. So now to get the win it’s just such an incredible ride.” 

Photo credit: Ronald Hoogendoorn/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Asked what advice she would give to an aspiring young rider, she responded: "Don’t trust authority too much.” Kiesenhofer herself certainly didn’t bow to the authority of the pre-race favourites of the formidable four-woman Dutch squad comprised entirely of potential winners, eventually taking over one minute on Annemiek van Vleuten.

The perennial question before every world championships and Olympic Games in recent years has been whether the Dutch team is simply too strong? Will they muddle up the tactics, unable to appoint a leader when every rider is capable of crossing the line first? Up to this point, they have answered that question by claiming every available title, but the implosion of the erstwhile composed and authoritative Dutch team — who by refusing to chase down the break facilitated Kiesenhofer’s win — doesn’t take away from the calculated and commanding ride by the Austrian.

The race had all the hallmarks of what makes women’s cycling so great: riders taking their chances in breakaways, plenty of attacking, and unpredictability. The Dutch team’s dropping of the tactical ball — while hugely disappointing for van Vleuten — only added to the thrill of the race. The lack of race radio has always been an element of the Olympic road race and to imply that Keisenhofer’s gain is only a result of a Dutch loss is a disservice to the Austrian. 

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The notion that every women's race that is broadcast must showcase the very best of the sport as though the riders have just one chance to impress a casual viewer is untrue and unhelpful. However, the attention that Kiesenhofer’s ride and extraordinary back-story attracted has thrust women’s cycling into the spotlight — a feat which race organisers and broadcasters have been pondering how to pull off for years. Her scrappy win has captured imaginations, transcended cycling and given mainstream publicity to the sport in a way that a win from a pre-race favourite would not have. 

As for the new Olympic Champion herself, she’ll continue doing what she loves: “I think the main change might actually be in myself, in my character. It will give me a lot of self-confidence and belief in myself. I’m still unsure what will change on the outside, I will keep my job and I will continue riding as I did before this victory.” 

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