The race that got away – Olympics Women’s Road Race

Anna Kiesenhofer (L) and Annamiek van Vleuten (R) both celebrate as they crossed the line at Tokyo 2020.
Anna Kiesenhofer (L) and Annamiek van Vleuten (R) both celebrate as they crossed the line at Tokyo 2020. Image: Tokyo 2020 (Twitter)

Anna Kiesenhofer won Olympic Gold in the Women’s Olympic Road Race at Tokyo 2020. Ahead of the UCI Women’s Road World Championships in Flanders, The Inner Sanctum spoke to the Australian Olympic riders about the last time the international women’s peloton raced.

Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) was a shock gold medallist at Tokyo 2020. Without any teammates, Kiesenhofer was not expected to figure in the medals, but a massive breakaway and a daring attack allowed her to time trial to victory.

The win was more shocking, as Annamiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) crossed the line with arms held aloft, clearly thinking that she had won Olympic gold.

How it happened

The race unfolded in dramatic circumstances, with the early breakaway building a substantial lead.

Sarah Gigante told The Inner Sanctum that the team had planned for many things, but one that they didn’t plan for was a breakaway with a massive lead.

“We did know, going into the race, one weakness the Dutch had was that maybe they wouldn’t have the domestiques that the other teams had, even though on paper they had probably the four strongest riders in the race, who would work for whom when they were all able to win for themselves,” Gigante said.

“We did mention that, but it was still pretty surreal when we were riding along and the gap was going out to over ten minutes, and we didn’t plan for that in the pre-race meetings when we came up with all the hypothetical scenarios of what would happen.

“With our road captain, we were good at communicating, I just listened to Tiff. My job was early on. When I was talking to Tiff Cromwell, she was really awesome, communicating with the team.

“She told us just to hang tight and get ready for the Dutch to chase, and get into any big breaks that went across, but none of that really happened for quite a while.”

Cromwell explained to The Inner Sanctum, that the race was as dramatic inside the peloton as it appeared on television.

“We were a big team, we were four riders, you have the Americans, the Germans, the Italians and obviously we’re all thinking the same like ‘we don’t want to start chasing this break until the Dutch commit because we don’t want to bring them to the line and they have four strong riders and just destroy us,’ and that saw the gap blow out like crazy and also women’s cycling you never see a 10-minute breakaway,” she explained.

The Plan went wrong

Gigante did a power of work early for the Australians, along with Cromwell, as they supported Grace Brown and Amanda Spratt, who was hoping to get a medal.

Brown told The Inner Sanctum that it was unexpected, and unfortunate that it didn’t come to plan.

“We had a really good plan going into the race, that we were all confident in, and we were confident in our abilities, and we started off the race well, doing what we planned to do, riding near each other and communicating the whole time, but I think what we didn’t plan for was two of our top riders to have really bad days,” Brown explained.

“Both Spratty and I had – I think I can speak for Spratty as well – some of our worst days on the bike.

“I think it was really good to see Tiff, in particular, sort of take the race into her own hands, and change, she went from being our number one helper to the last one of us in the race, so I think that’s really commendable to her, and she did the whole team really proud.”

Grace Brown (L) admitted that the day of the Olympic Road Race was not a good ride for her. Image: Australian Olympic Team (Twitter)

As Brown hinted, the race changed dramatically with about 50km to go, as the breakaway was out to about a 10-minute lead. Annamiek van Vleuten came unstuck, and had a crash, but got up quickly, and along with the rest of the Dutch team, lit the flames for a dramatic finish.

“I didn’t actually know that Annamiek had had a crash, I didn’t see it or hear about it until after the race, but I think the Dutch started attacking, and I followed an attack by Anna van der Breggen, and on a normal day, I would have been fine doing that, but it just cooked me, and I couldn’t hold onto the peloton once they came past,” Brown said.

Cromwell also commented that she didn’t know about the crash until afterwards, but sensed the change in the race.

“I didn’t even know she crashed, cause that part within the bunch, because I think that’s when Annamiek was away and she kind of came back or something like this,” Cromwell said.

“So obviously it was my job to help guide the girls as much as possible so that we were cohesive because we didn’t have race radios as everybody knows, so it’s important to know that we’re all communicating.

“I think by the time she was away and came back was in the period we’d all kind of chased back so it was kind of- alright we got back what’s the situation I could see that the Germans- no the Americans at the time were chasing on the front.”

Sarah Gigante spent time on the front early in the race. Image: AusCycling (Twitter)

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The Difficulty

Brown wasn’t the only one in trouble, and all the Aussies were put into difficulty.

“It turned out that they left it very late, and suddenly they were all doing attacks and counterattacks over the steep sections at the top of the climb, and that really put the pressure on, and unfortunately, no Aussies got over the top,” Gigante explained.

“Three of us got back on before the next climb, but that was quite tiring.

“I got back on first, I chased solo through the convoy, I was really happy to make it back but I was sad to see no one else was there when I got back, but three minutes later, Grace and Tiff came up to me, they’d just got back on too, so that was really good to see.”

Despite that, Gigante and Brown were dropped on the descent, leaving Cromwell alone in the bunch.

She wasn’t deterred, and still attempted to make the best of the race.

“It’s really frustrating when you’ve targeted for such a big race and then something happens, you don’t have your best day, so we got back with some of us, cause I got dropped on that climb and was with Grace and with Sarah there,” Cromwell said.

“From then on I knew what my finish line was, what my job was to kind of get them to, about 5km before we hit the circuit for the first time and I was kind of just there and did my job.

“Before I knew it I was the only Aussie there and I had to kind of go into the mode of alright how do I try and get us some kind of result, wasn’t the plan but you know that’s what bike racing is about.

“It’s about being adaptable and just never giving up and that’s just the mentality I had, I was just like alright what situation okay I’m not the one who can really make the race but I can try to do something.”

Tiffany Cromwell was the best of the Australian riders on the day of the Olympic Road Race. Image: AusCycling (Twitter)

The Confusion

With about 40km to go, at about the same time that the Aussies were being dropped, Kiesenhofer attacked her breakaway companions, and decided to time trial solo towards the finish line, in the hope of Olympic glory.

With Annamiek van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Marianne Vos and Demi Vollering all attacking and chasing, the Dutch showed a determination to attack the race. When they caught Kiesenhofer’s former breakaway companions, however, the drive went out of the race.

All of a sudden, the Dutch started looking around, as if they were the front of the race, oblivious to Kiesenhofer’s attack. The Dutch clearly thought that they had the race under control, and Brown was one of the riders who fell into the same trap.

“I wasn’t aware at all of the race situation,” Brown said.

“Because of what happened on the climb, our team got split up, and when Tiff and I got back to the front bunch, there was only Sarah Gigante there, and she’d been a little bit tailed off and come back as well, so she didn’t know the situation, and she couldn’t communicate it to us, and we hadn’t seen our team car.

“At that point, we didn’t know if the break was still out at all.

“You have to sort of look around to see how everyone else is behaving to see what’s going on, and when the Dutch are behaving as though there’s no one out ahead, you assume that’s the case.”

Cromwell was able to get something out of it, with a 26th placed finish, just over three minutes down. Despite not being in the finish, it was clear that Cromwell was one of the few riders who was fully aware of the situation, and that was partly due to her smarts and experience.

“Because I was off the back when we came into the track I took a quick look at the TV which was on the side of the buildings because it’s always a good tactic and there’s no time to go back to the car,” Cromwell said.

“It was still her name with a time gap, I just didn’t know if it was her by herself or if it was the three so I definitely knew she was there, it was just weird because people were there are they chasing.

“I didn’t realise the other two had been dropped, as the communication isn’t always the best the board isn’t always the best, with the information try to work out who was where on the road, but I was fully aware there was still at least a three and a half minute gap when we entered the track and then did that one last lap.”

The Dramatic Finale

Cromwell would be dropped from the front group on the lap around the Fuji Speedway, as van Vleuten attacked with what she thought would be the winning move.

Despite that winning move, van Vleuten never caught Kiesenhofer. Eliza Longo Borghini (Italy) said that when she crossed the finish line behind van Vleuten, she knew that she had bronze and not silver.

The incident left questions for the Dutch to answer about how they had miscalculated, and for the whole peloton, about how they let a single rider get away and stay away.

The World Championships

Ahead of tonight’s Road World Championships in Flanders, there are few certainties. With a tough course and bigger teams, making the race more open. The Dutch team will be favourites again, with some of the strongest riders in the race.

Ellen van Dijk and Annamiek van Vleuten put two Dutch riders on the podium for the time trial, and Anna van der Breggen is also an Olympic medalist in the time trial. The Dutch are without a doubt the favourites. Will they let the chance slip through their fingers again?

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About Daniel Coppel 166 Articles
Daniel is a lawyer by trade. He covers netball and Olympics/Paralympics for The Inner Sanctum from Sydney. He has a particular focus on empowerment of sporting leaders off-field, and highlighting off-field contributions of athletes. He also appears on podcasts for a variety of sports.

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