After she crossed the finish line, she lay on the pavement, gasping for breath. The end of the 85-mile road race on a brutally hot day took other cyclists’ breath away, too, but in a different way.
Kiesenhofer, a 30-year-old mathematician, had been riding with Poland’s Anna Plichta and Israel’s Omer Shapiro as they took a big lead over more than 10 minutes. At Kagosaka Pass, Kiesenhofer decided to take off, and the rest of the peloton forgot about her.
Over the final miles, Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands broke away from the remaining cyclists and crossed the finish line alone, throwing her arms into the air in the belief that she had won her country’s third straight gold medal in the event. She wasn’t alone. Britain’s Lizzie Deignan told the BBC: “The best person won the bike race here today. Annemiek was clearly the strongest.”
Except she had finished in second place, 1 minute 15 seconds behind Kiesenhofer.
Lack of communication contributed to the loss. In the Olympics, radios are not allowed, as they are in professional races, to update riders on their competitors. So van Vleuten and others lost their orientation and apparently felt no urgency to sprint during the final stretch.
“It feels incredible,” Kiesenhofer said (via the Associated Press). “I couldn’t believe it. Even when I crossed the line, it was like: ‘Is it done now? Do I have to continue riding?’ Incredible ... I was just trying to get to the line. My legs were completely empty. I have never emptied myself so much in my whole life. I could hardly pedal any more. It felt like there was zero energy in my legs.”
Van Vleuten, 38, was attempting to follow in the tracks of Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos, Dutch gold medalists in 2016 and 2012, respectively. Instead, she came away with a silver medal and disappointment in her first Olympics since a crash in Rio de Janeiro left her with a concussion and three fractures in her back.
“I’m gutted,” van Vleuten said. “With five kilometers to go, Marianne came up to me, [and] none of us knew if everyone was caught back. This is an example of what happens if you ride an important race like this without communication.”
Kiesenhofer switched to cycling in 2014 after injuries kept her from running in triathlons and duathlons. She rode for a Catalan amateur team and won the Spanish National Cup overall title in 2016 as her academic career was flourishing. She obtained a degree from the Technical University of Vienna, studied at Cambridge and then earned a doctorate from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. Kiesenhofer teaches at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne and doesn’t have a coach or pro contract, managing her own training.
On Sunday it all added up, and Kiesenhofer, the lone member of Austria’s cycling “team,” won the country’s first cycling medal since Adolf Schmal won gold in a 12-hour race at the first Summer Games in 1896.
“It’s just so incredible,” Kiesenhofer said. “I have really sacrificed so much for today. I wasn’t expecting to finish it off like that. I sacrificed everything even for a top-15 place, and now to get this, for the sacrifices, it’s just such a reward.”