Trying to make sense of a chaotic and confusing women’s Olympic road race

Who knew what and what impact did it have on the race?

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On Sunday afternoon, Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer rode to an unlikely solo victory in the women’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics.

The 30-year-old was the first to attack, creating a breakaway that built a lead of more than 10 minutes. Kiesenhofer attacked from a thinned out breakaway with 41 km to go, and held on to take a surprise gold medal.

A little over a minute later, Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) crossed the line with her arms in the air, thinking she’d won gold.

A deflated Van Vleuten said she had no idea Kiesenhofer was up the road. She thought that when the reduced peloton had caught Anna Plichta (Poland) and Omer Shapira (Israel) with 4.5 km to go that all breakaway riders had been caught. She wasn’t the only one. Meanwhile, others in the same group did know that Kiesenhofer was still away. Had a lack of race radios created chaos in the biggest women’s race of the year?

A day later, it’s still a little hard to know who knew what, and who was responsible for the confusion. Here’s what we do know.

Van Vleuten had no idea Kiesenhofer was up the road.

“I thought I won, yes,” Van Vleuten told NOS TV. “At 5 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 WorldTour races are with comms. We are all wondering here who won.

“We heard 45 seconds with 10 km to go. It showed that there was a lot of confusion and not only with me. It was in the Dutch team but also the other [nations]. It summarises it quite well if after the finish we are asking each other who had won, and what the time gaps were.”

Gold for Kiesenhofer ahead of Van Vleuten (left) and Elisa Longo Borghini (right).

Lizzie Deignan also didn’t know that Kiesenhofer was still away.

Deignan (Great Britain) finished 11th, in what was left of the peloton, about 30 seconds behind Van Vleuten.

“Honestly, the best person won the bike race – Annemiek was clearly the strongest, so chapeau to her,” Deignan told the BBC before being told what actually happened.

Van Vleuten’s teammate Anna van der Breggen also didn’t know.

“We took the other women back and thought we were riding for the win, but in the end not so,” she told NOS TV. “That’s too bad. We just didn’t know that the Austrian was still in the lead alone. We received the information that the Polish rider [Plichta] was the last to be brought in. 

“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, but 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.”

But Marianne Vos did know that Kiesenhofer was still ahead.

It seems there wasn’t great communication among the Dutch riders in the remnants of the peloton. Note that Vos’s quotes below contradict what Van Vleuten said about the conversation she had with Vos at 5 km to go.

“There were still three riders ahead and we caught two, so I knew there was one more ahead,” Vos told Dutch Radio 1. “It was difficult with communication, but you know that in advance. Without earpieces you have to make do with the information from the side. In retrospect, it is easy and you would have done it differently, that is clear.”

(Update: In an article on her website, Van Vleuten has since explained that “Marianne only saw with 3 km to go that Kiesenhofer was ahead, but by then I was already gone and I didn’t get that [information].”)

The Dutch sports director, Loes Gunnewijk, also knew that Kiesenhofer was still away.

But getting that info to her riders apparently wasn’t possible in the finale.

“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,” Gunnewijk said. “We don’t have earpieces and on that last lap around the track we couldn’t get up with the car. Only then did I realize that it was not clear to the riders that there was still someone ahead.”

Other riders in the reduced peloton knew Kiesenhofer was away too.

Bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) knew that the Austrian was up the road. “When we caught the two ladies … I realised there was another one,” she said. “I thought that Holland had everything in their hands but in the end sometimes when you play tactics too much and you think you are the strongest, you lose the race.”

Lotte Kopecky (Belgium), who came fourth with a small gap over the peloton, knew that she’d finished just outside the medals.

“I couldn’t change the fact that Kiesenhofer stayed ahead,” she said. “I tried to get things going, but nobody wanted to take control of the race.”

There have been mixed reports about what time checks were available.

Van Vleuten said after the race that she’d found it hard to get info on time gaps.

“When I was alone in front I had to ask the TV moto person what was happening, what was the advantage, the times,” she said. “So I think that was far from professional and it’s very disappointing to have this situation in the most important race in four years.”

Others responded with a different perspective, including Seb Piquet, voice of Radio Tour at the Tour de France.

But others have questioned whether the right information was on those time boards.

Generally, the tone on social media has been unsympathetic towards the Dutch.

Many people have suggested the Dutch were too reliant on race radios, and that they should have done a better job of gathering and circulating information.

Pro rider Alex Dowsett weighed in with a similar sentiment.

It’s not clear whether knowing Kiesenhofer was up the road would have even affected the outcome.

But again, perhaps it comes down to whether the riders were given the correct information.

In a race that prompted so many questions, there are few easy answers to be had. It’s not entirely clear if riders were given as much information as they should have been, or whether those riders were to blame for not being as attentive as they needed to. It is striking, however, that some riders in the reduced peloton knew Kiesenhofer was still away while others didn’t, and that the Dutch team had some who knew and some who didn’t. At the very least, it seems intra-team communication within the Dutch squad could have been better.

Amidst all the chaos and confusion, though, one thing remains clear and should not be forgotten. Regardless of what was happening behind her and why, Anna Kiesenhofer put in a remarkable ride on Sunday. After attacking from the very start, and again with more 40 km to go, she was able to hold on for an audacious and richly deserved gold medal.

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