'Didn't know': Horror moment cyclist is denied Olympic redemption

·Sports Reporter
·4-min read
Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Kleuten celebrated thinking she had won gold in the women's road race at the Tokyo Olympics, when she had actually finished second.
Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Kleuten mistakenly thought she had won gold in the women's road race, instead claiming silver after the winner crossed the line earlier. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

As much as the Olympics are about athletic triumph, the Games can dole out devastating heartbreak in equal measure - as Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten learned.

The 38-year-old came into the Tokyo Olympics boasting one of the more inspirational stories of overcoming the odds, five years after a devastating crash left her career hanging in the balance.

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At the Rio Olympics in 2016, van Kleuten wound up in intensive care after a shocking accident which left her with three cracked vertebrae and a serious concussion.

Fast forward to Tokyo and her determination was plain to see, erupting in celebration as she crossed the line in the women's road race believing she had won gold.

Unfortunately she was denied by a twist of fate and a rule unique to the Olympic road race - Austria's Anna Kiesenhofer had actually crossed the line just over a minute before she did.

An official from the Dutch team had to stop van Kleuten in her tracks and inform her, leaving the silver medallist devastated.

Unlike other major road races, cyclists at the Olympics are not permitted to communicate with their team - meaning that Kiesenhofer's move to break away from the pack went unnoticed by the Dutch team, hence van Kleuten's ill-advised celebration.

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“I didn’t know. I was wrong. I didn’t know,” van Vleuten said after the race.

Her Dutch teammate, Anna van der Breggen, explained the situation further to Dutch media outlet De Telegraff.

“This is actually the only race where we ride without communication, without earphones," she said.

"We got some riders back and we thought we were going for the win. But that was not the case. You should actually start counting how many come back.

“It was confusing in several ways. We can go to the squad car for the information and we will. But in the final you don’t do that anymore.”

Anna Kiesenhofer broke away early

How does a breakaway cyclist stay in front of a peloton for so long that the rest of the field seemingly forgets she exists?

It started with Kiesenhofer being one of three women breaking away from the pack early in the race, then breaking away again by herself to grab a massive lead. 

The peloton eventually caught the other two, and might have just assumed there was no one else ahead.

There was no way for the field to know of Kiesenhofer's place as there are no radios used in the road race, and Van Vleuten would have been especially unlikely to be aware of how the race began as she was involved in an early crash.

All of that added up to Van Vleuten, the pre-race favorite, crossing the finish line not realising Kiesenhofer had spent pretty much the whole day with a chasmic lead for first place.

It was an especially cruel ending for Van Vleuten, who was in line for a win in the same event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro until she crashed out late in the race and had to be hospitalised with spinal fractures and a concussion.

Austria's Anna Kiesenhofer (Gold), Netherlands' Annemiek van Vleuten (Silver) and Italy's Elisa Longo Borghini (Bronze) during the medal ceremony after the Women's Road Race at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)
Austria's Anna Kiesenhofer (Gold), Netherlands' Annemiek van Vleuten (Silver) and Italy's Elisa Longo Borghini (Bronze) during the medal ceremony after the Women's Road Race at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

As for Kiesenhofer, it's hard to understate the improbability of her win. 

The Austrian entered the race as the only cyclist from her country, leaving her with no teammates for help. She hadn't raced with a professional team since 2017. 

She is 30 years old, participating in her first Olympics. And outside of her cycling career, she's a postdoctoral researcher in mathematics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.

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