Van Vleuten mistakes silver for gold as confusion reigns in Olympic peloton

A lack of race radios and what racers say were infrequent and sometimes incorrect time checks appear to have led to confusion in the peloton.

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When Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) crossed the finish line of the Olympic road race a minute and 15 seconds behind Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) she threw her arms in the air, clearly ecstatic. Van Vleuten rode straight to her soigneur, the emotion that she had just won the road race at the Olympic games etched on her face. Except she hadn’t. Kiesenhofer won the race.

She wasn’t alone in her bewilderment. A lack of race radios and what racers say were infrequent and sometimes incorrect time checks appear to have led to confusion in the peloton and a false sense that the race was back together. Other riders indicated after the finish that they too were unaware Kiesenhofer was still up the road.

At the finish, the camera panned away from Van Vleuten, back to Kiesenhofer on the ground, barely able to comprehend what she had done and when Van Vleuten was next on-screen the excitement was gone. Van Vleuten and Dutch teammate Anna Van der Breggen stood side by side in silence, staring ahead at nothing.

“I thought I won, yes,” Van Vleuten said. “At five km to go, Marianne (Vos) comes up to me and she didn’t know anymore. No one knew if everyone was back. This shows that such an important race without comms, all World Tour races are with comms. We are all wondering here who won.

“I really felt stupid and then I saw the others being unsure. It sucks. I thought I won. Anna said the gap was 45 seconds and then I was riding so hard that you know you should have her back. We thought we had her back. I didn’t race differently than I would in any other final and got the maximum for the Dutch team.”

In a post-race interview, Van der Breggen said they were not given time gaps to Kiesenhofer out front. “I tried to count who they had caught and thought they had everyone,” Van der Breggen said after the race. “The tactics weren’t wrong, we just had not the right info. With our info, we did everything right.”

The Olympics are unique in a number of ways compared to normal pro races, more similar to your average junior race, with smaller team sizes and no radios, where regular tactics go out the window. It’s up to the team captains to count the riders out front, and try and keep an ear to the ground for any information on the time gaps. Except the Olympic games is not a junior race.

Without radios, riders rely on race motorbikes for time checks and race information. They can also drop back to talk to their directors in the cars, but as the race picks up it’s not easy to step back and have a chat.

The break that ended up winning the Olympic road race went clear at kilometre zero, originally a group of five. There were other attacks throughout the day, but it would have been up to team captains on the road to count the riders as they dropped back. Apparently, they missed one.

It wasn’t just the Dutch. Great Britain’s Lizzie Deignan appeared to think Van Vleuten was Olympic champion shortly after the finish. “It was incredibly frustrating to be in my position, there were way too many motorbikes,” she said at the finish. “Honestly the best person won the bike race, Annemiek was clearly the strongest, so well done to her.”

Other riders confirmed they had known a rider remained out front. Both Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) and Lotte Kopecky (Belgium) said after the finish they had been racing for silver.

The confusion and miscommunication is unfortunate for Kiesenhofer, who put in the performance of her life to win gold at the Olympic Games with no teammates, after retiring at the end of 2017. After a year off Kiesenhofer returned to racing in 2019 and won the Austrian road and time trial titles. She also finished fifth in the European Championships ITT the same year.

Kiesenhofer went into the race an underdog and with a gutsy ride pulled off the impossible. When Van Vleuten attacked on Doushi Road the gap to Kiesenhofer never faltered. A strong climber, Kiesenhofer still succeeded in staying away from those behind her.

Once the dust has settled, all people will see is the result on the page, and the results are clear. Anna Kiesenhofer is the Tokyo 2020 Olympic champion.

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