When Dutch cyclist Annemiek Van Vleuten crossed the finish line of the Olympic Road Cycling event over the weekend, she was ecstatic. Oddly so. Not that a silver medal is anything to scoff at, but her reaction was slightly over-the-top for an event favourite who captured silver instead of gold. That’s because she was deeply mistaken. “When I crossed the line, I thought I had won”, admitted the silver medallist. The obvious question, then, is how could this have happened? Well, part of it has to do with the fact that she underestimated the gold medallist; her teammate, Anna van der Breggen, who won the event in Rio, even admitted that “I don’t know her”.
There are many reasons why gold medallist Anna Kiesenhofer came into the event as an unknown; she only took up the sport in 2014 and turned professional in 2017. Her path to the Olympics was unorthodox yet also impressive: she obtained a Master’s in Mathematics from Cambridge and a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. Her path during the event was also unusual in road cycling. Even though athletes win medals by themselves, they typically get there on the backs of their teammates who take the aerodynamic burdens early in the race so the fastest riders from their countries can vie for the top spots. To beat a deep team, individual racers often attempt breakaways, and that is exactly what happened. Kiesenhofer and two other riders broke away from the pack early in the race, and though the main group eventually caught two of her fellow breakaway peers, Kiesenhofer remained out front by a sizeable margin.
In typical events, riders communicate with their teams via radio, so they are always aware of where they stand. But the Olympics are not typical; they do not allow such communication, creating a more “natural” event. So, while Kiesenhofer’s competitors would normally know about her lead and would make joint efforts to catch her, nobody had any idea that she was in the lead by more than one minute. Kiesenhofer admitted that she also underestimated herself; she had hoped at best for a top-15 finish.
Who is your unknown rider?
There are multiple ways we can interpret this incredible story. There is the negative way: we can think we are doing everything perfectly, but there is always this nagging feeling that somewhere out there is someone, a completely unexpected someone, who will snatch our glory from us without us even knowing. But there is also a positive way to interpret things: we humans are capable of surprising others, and even ourselves. Judging by the genuine smiles of both Kiesenhofer and Van Vleuten on the Olympic podium, they would advocate for a positive outlook.