An upset of titanic proportions decided the Olympic women’s road race, with Austrian Anna Kiesehofer making the most of a ten-minute advantage from the peloton and a number of nations looking to the Dutch to work to take gold.
It was a brilliant effort from the relatively unknown Kiesenhofer, who was the first to attack when the flag was dropped at the start of 137 kilometres of racing over the Olympics course. She found herself in a solid breakaway that quickly reduced to three solid professional riders on the long climb of Doushi Road.
Behind, the nations of the peloton were all looking for the Dutch to sacrifice some members of their much vaunted four women squad of winner but they seemed happy to let the gap go further and further out. In the end, Kiesenhofer used the uphill ramp into Kagosaka Pass to drop her breakway companions, at that stage and still with 40 kilometres to race, it was a time trial to the finish against the best riders in the world, but with a five minute advantage in hand.
In the end, she didn’t need all of the lead, and while her former breakaway companions were swept up in the final kilometres by the peloton it was Kiesehofer who still had a minute’s lead by the finish to claim a famous Olympic victory.
A hot day with 137 kilometres of racing in the offing saw a lot of riders searching for icebags from team cars and soigneurs during the course of the stage.
Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) was the first to attack, Carla Oberholzer (South Africa) and Vera Looser (Namibia), Omer Shapira (Israel) and Polish rider Anna Plichta (Poland) following her to form the early breakaway without much response from the peloton.
Selam Amha (Ethiopia) and Mosana Debesay (Eritrea) set off to try and make it across to the break, but couldn’t initially make contact and spent a long time in limbo before being reabsorbed by the main bunch.
Catalina Soto Campos (Chile) and Agua Marina Espínola (Paraguay) used the catch to launch their own attack, despite the breakaway of five already being well established at seven minutes up the road. Soto Campos has a significant Australian connection, being a member of Brunswick Cycling Club and having fundraising organised by the club sending her to the junior world championships.
The German team came to the fore with the time gap to the leaders reaching its maximum with 85 kilometres left to race. The German team didn’t set a hard pace however, with everyone looking for the Dutch to take control of the chase and sacrifice some of their vaunted stars in the chase of the three leaders.
The Dutch riders began a series of attacks with 65 kilometres remaining, with Vollering, van der Breggen and van Vleuten launching separate attacks from the peloton. That prompted a heightened pace in the race, and then a massive assault from Annemiek van Vleuten left the main bunch behind.
She had a gap of 45 seconds by the top of the Doushi Road climb over the peloton, but still six minutes to chase down the breakaway as they hit the flatter section around Lake Yamanaka. She very gradually ate away into the breakaway’s advantage, bringing it down to five minutes with 40 kilometres and the ascent of Kagosaka Pass to come.
Kiesenhofer used the climb to attack her breakaway companions, immediately getting a gap on Plichta – who was grabbing a feed bag – and eventually shedding Shapira on the uphill.
That saw the little-heralded Austrian in prime position to win the Olympic gold, still five minutes up on van Vleuten, with the peloton futher behind as she stubbornly held her lead down the descent towards the Fuji International Speedway. She headed through the first pass at the finish with still four and a half minutes lead on the peloton, who had caught van Vleuten, with her erstwhile breakaway companions, Plichta and Shapira almost two minutes behind.
From there it was a test of Kiesenhofer’s ability to struggle with the pain of her long effort, pulling a lot of faces as she continued to pour the power on, as the chasing peloton saw a lot of attacks with Juliette Labous (France) the most successful, with a solo move looking like it might catch the pair of Plichta and Shapira.
At that stage, the Dutch finally decided to sacrifice a rider, with Vollering committing to the chase at the front of the group to pace the other Netherlands riders to the escaped Labous and what they thought was the front of the race, the two riders dropped from the breakaway.
Labous was recovered, and the Plichta/Shapira group had a minute and 20 seconds with ten kilometres remaining, but the gap was almost four minutes for Kiesenhofer, and even though she was beginning to labour it was an impossible task to recover her.
The pace-making of Vollering gave way to the combined attacks of van Vleuten and van der Breggen, with a final surge of van Vleuten proving too much for the remnants of the peloton as she jumped clear to second on the road with the Plichta/Shapira duo caught.
Lotte Kopecky (Belgium) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) launched from the main group to try and follow, but van Vleuten quickly got a good lead.
It wasn’t going to affect the winner of the gold medal though, with Kiesenhofer claiming an upset win for the ages as she soloed in for the victory and collapsed in an emotional heap with her support staff at the finish.
Van Vleuten powered over the line a minute and 15 seconds behind the Austrian, saluting what she thought was a win with no team radios to tell her otherwise at the finish. Longo Borghini was a further 14 seconds back for the bronze medal, with Kopecky fourth and Marianne Vos (Netherlands) leading what was left of the peloton over the line for fifth.
The highest-placed Australian on the day was Tiffany Cromwell in 26th, finishing two minutes and 56 seconds behind the eventual winner. All the Australian team had been dropped on the climb to Doushi Road, and while they all managed to get back on in the regrouping of the peloton, they weren’t to play a significant role in the race from there, with injuries sustained in recent racing by Grace Brown, Sarah Gigante and Amanda Spratt likely coming into play.
By Jamie Finch-Penninger