Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the finish line at Fuji International Speedway, raising her arms into the air in celebration. The Dutch cyclist, who had suffered heartbreak at the last Olympic games when she crashed en route to gold, had attacked a few kilometers earlier to leave the rest of the peloton behind.
Gold, finally. There was only problem, though: she hadn’t actually crossed the line first. Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer had been waiting for over a minute before van Vleuten arrived to claim silver.
Having thought she won gold when she crossed the line after a successful attack on the race’s final climb, Van Vleuten eventually realized their mistake. The cameras caught her speaking to a member of the Netherlands’ staff about the error.
“Oh Ruud, I was wrong,” she said. “We got nothing!”
So, what had happened?
Van Vleuten entered the day as one of the pre-race favorites but right at the start a group of riders pulled away. That group included Kiesenhofer, who later attacked a second time to go solo for the last 41 kilometers of the 137-kilometer race. Behind her, van Vleuten was unable to bridge the gap even when she herself tried to attack (an attack that came after an earlier crash brought back memories of the 2016 games).
She was eventually brought back by the rest of the peloton, which later managed to catch and pass Kiesenhofer’s former companions in the breakaway. However, it seems as if everybody in the group had lost count of who they had and had not passed. They simply forgot about the Austrian who was still riding all by herself more than two minutes in the lead.
Kiesenhofer, meanwhile, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of road racing.
Austria’s lone representative at the event, the 30-year-old is not even part of a pro tour team (unlike van Vleuten). Instead, she is working as a mathematician. She had earned her Master’s degree at Cambridge and her PhD at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and is now working as a postdoctoral researcher in Lausanne, Switzerland.
That’s not to say she isn’t a talented rider. She is a four-time national champion, and she has won some minor races before starting to focus on her academic career. Her performance on Sunday was superb.
To win gold, however, she needed more than that. Kiesenhofer needed a perfect storm and she got it.
After initiating an early breakaway, Kiesenhofer later benefitted from a peloton that was both inactive and confused. This confusion can partially be blamed on the rule book: while “normal” races allow radio communication between riders and their staffs, the Olympics prohibit the use of any technology of the kind.
“No one knew if everyone was back,” van Vleuten said in the aftermath of the event. “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.”
“I tried to count who they had caught and thought they had everyone,” van Vleuten’s teammate, Anna van der Breggen, said. “The tactics weren’t wrong, we just had not the right info. With our info, we did everything right.”
Still, the mighty Dutch team should have realized that one rider was still missing after it had caught up to Kiesenhofer’s former companions, Anna Plichta of Poland and Omer Shapiro of Israel. It did not, and the mistake allowed the Austrian to win 75 seconds ahead of van Vleuten and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Don’t try winning a counting contest against a mathematician.